Sparsholt Collegeâ€™s Gemma Romanis has her hands fuller than the average student. Not only is Gemma on the first year of the Collegeâ€™s Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA), the official training course for zookeepers, but sheâ€™s also working full time as a keeper at Drusillas Park and raising a new-born sloth.
For the last six months Gemma has been hand-rearingÂ Flash,Â the baby sloth around the clock while working at the zoo and completing the first year of her Diploma. The zoo and Sparsholt are delighted as Gemma is not just coping, she is excelling, passing the course with multiple distinctions.
Commenting on the value of the Diploma and how itâ€™s helping her with her role at the zoo, Gemma said: â€śI really enjoy the course and Iâ€™ve learned a huge amount. The main benefit is I have a far greater understanding of how zoos work and am extending my theoretical knowledge of looking after exotic animals. The course is also proving fantastic in developing a platform for my zoological careerâ€ť.
Back at Drusillas, Gemma shares the responsibility of caring for the orphaned sloth with Head Keeper, Mark Kenward. Between them, they work four nights on and four nights off, carrying out feeds at 8pm, midnight, 3am and 7am before returning to Drusillas Park each morning for their day job.
Gemma commented: â€śI do really love it but it has been incredibly tiring. I have had limited social life since we started this due to the demands of hand rearing and meeting coursework deadlines.Â Flash is definitely worth it though and I really appreciate the Collegeâ€™s flexibility in enabling me to look after the sloth and do my course work.â€ť
â€śWhen she is with me we often sit together watching the telly in the evening, particularly EastEnders, or she will be off exploring and practising being a sloth. She eats a variety of steamed vegetables, goatâ€™s milk and water. Sweetcorn and chicory are her current favourites.â€ť
â€śMark and I work really closely together and always try to stick to the same routine. We also meet up regularly to discuss the next stage of her development, so we can ensure she learns all she needs to know to reintegrate into sloth society.â€ť
â€śWe are currently trying to ween her off hand-feeding by encouraging her to recognise and seek out her own food. We have also created similar activity pens in our homes to build up her strength and coordination.â€ť
â€śThere is still a long way to go too. Sloths are not fully independent until they are a year old, so we still have another six months or so ahead of us. Iâ€™ll be pretty sad when she is all grown up and doesnâ€™t need me anymore. However, Iâ€™ll take great comfort in the fact we would have achieved what we set out to do.â€ť
The Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA), the official training course for zookeepers, is exclusively offered nationally and internationally by Sparsholt College. The DMZAA is a partnership between BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and Sparsholt College and is a two-year programme delivered by distance learning, designed for people already working in a zoo or with an animal collection.