Andy Beer is a world-renowned Zoological specialist. He manages the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals and is also the Nutritionist for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). He has worked for Sparsholt College since 1982.
Tuesday 11th November was a proud day for me, representing Sparsholt College as we launched our second International centre for delivering the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals at Riga Zoo in Latvia. The first centre was previously launched at Al Bustan Zoological Centre in the United Arab Emirates.

In my role as Director of Zoo Management Studies at the College, I was present to witness the signing of the agreement by the Director of Riga Zoo, Rolands Greizins, who was delighted to be part of the collaboration which recognises the role of the Zoo as the leading Zoological collection in the Baltic States and across the region.

The induction day formally marked the enrolment of the first eight learners from three different Zoos: three keepers from Moscow Zoo – Olga Levteeva, Marina Soboleva and Damdin Tsyrendondokov; two from Riga Zoo – Sintija Putina and Andrejs Obolevics; Inta Lange from Ligatne Nature Trails; and two trainee Vets – Kristine Calite and Jana Cernova – who are gaining experience in zoo veterinary procedures at Riga Zoo.

The course features two years of distance learning, validated by City & Guilds, and the cohort will use the College’s Virtual Learning Environment, LEDGE, which will enable them to access the same e-resources as other keepers in different countries. The growing range of electronic resources serviced by our Library and Learning Resources are particularly beneficial. These include the International Zoo Yearbook; the journals Zoo Biology, Conservation, and Conservation Biology; approximately 500,000 journal articles through the database EBSCO; 500 e-books. This technology ensures that the same curriculum can be delivered to centres in different countries, removing geographical barriers from the equation.

I have been involved in the discussion and planning of the development of a training course for zoo keepers in Latvia and other neighbouring Baltic countries for some years. In addition to the initial formation of a course, the continuation of the programme in the long-term has to be carefully considered. To this end, the Curator of Riga Zoo, Guna Vitola, will be employed by the College as the Regional Coordinator and she will be responsible for centre administration and tutorials with learners as their studies progress.

Guna is herself a former student of the College, having completed the Foundation degree in Zoo Resource Management, so it is particularly fitting to have her involved at the forefront. Guna says she is delighted at the realisation of the course and to be working with us.

The new agreement is particularly pleasing for myself and the College as it signifies the extension of our influence and remit as the undisputed leader for Zoo training, not only in the UK but Europe as well; we are already exclusive partners with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) for the development and delivery of the national keeper training scheme.

Our partnership with BIAZA was formed in 2002 when we were selected as a centre of vocational excellence to develop the syllabus, resources and delivery system for the Advanced National Certificate in the Management of Zoo Animals. This was superseded by the current Diploma in 2010 and the qualification began to capitalise on the development of technology to primarily become an online course. Considering the remit of Zoos to become sustainable with the minimum use of resources, it harmonises well that the course is now 99% paper free.

In the first year, learners complete a suite of core units on the role and organisation of Zoos; research; education and learning; conservation; research in Zoos; animal nutrition; records; horticulture; and animal health. In year two, individual keepers personally choose a range of options in accordance with their specialisms and interests; these are selected from aquariums, herptiles, birds and mammals.

Our course is recognised as the industry gold standard because of its relevance and our dedicated suite of resources. We discussed the content of the units and agreed them with panels of industrial representatives before the final submission to City & Guilds was made. Hundreds of zoo keepers in the UK and Ireland hold certificates to prove their successful completion of the course and the value of having done so. It is exciting now to be able to note that their contemporaries from Riga will, after a good deal of hard work, soon be able to join them.

For us here at Sparsholt College, the work continues. We will keep exploring to discover possible new partners to help us deliver the course elsewhere, in different countries and on different continents.