Ever wondered what it's like to be an...Animal Handler

Ever wondered what it's like to be an...Animal Handler

Jay Gunn with his meerkats

He's magic with animals

He's magic with animals

He's magic with animals

First published in Business: Odd Jobs The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Deputy Business Editor

Business isn't always about boardrooms, briefings and black coffee. So, in tribute to the North-East men and women who take a more unusual approach to enterprise, this week, Lauren Pyrah talks to Jay Gunn, who owns and runs Darlington-based Jay's Animal Encounters.

Tell us about your business.

Animal Encounters gives people the opportunity to meet animals and get closer to them than they have before. I have a collection of about 60 different species ranging from meerkats to snakes and reptiles, which were all born into captivity and are used to being handled, so have a high tolerance of people.

I provide a range of services, including school visits, college lectures, private functions such as birthday parties and after dinner talks, phobia sessions for people who have fears of particular animals, and television work.

Getting so close to the animals means people can truly see, touch and appreciate the animals, and there is a huge educational aspect to my work.

How did you get into this business?

I didnt always work with animals but I always had a fascination and appreciation for them. I liked arts and animals. I didnt really know what job I would do - thought I about becoming a vet, but I trained as a graphic designer and became an art teacher.

I was getting ready for work one morning, putting on my tie, and on the television was a news report about the plight of orangutans in Borneo. The reporter, who was holding a baby orangutan, looked straight in the camera as he delivered his plea. It was like he was talking directly to me.

Five minutes later, I was standing in the bosss office, telling him I was leaving. I worked the rest of the year, but by then, the orangutan crisis has died down, so I set out on a round-the-world tour, working on conservation projects.

When I returned home, I managed to get work at Edinburgh Zoo, where I engaged people with animals. But I found it was becoming more and more difficult for schools to visit because of health and safety issues, and I decided to put together my own collection of animals. That is when I started my own business six years ago.

Tell us about some of the more unusual animals youve encountered.

One of the places I visited was Komodo, in Indonesia, which was absolutely fascinating. The Komodo dragons are evolutionary primitive and are unique to this area. They have this septic red saliva and will bite a deer then stalk it for days, waiting for the septicemia to set in and for the deer to die before they eat it. It was absolutely incredible.

Are you scared of the animals, or squeamish about any of them?

No - I can see beauty in all of them. Nature is so beautifully balanced. When you introduce something which isnt meant to be there, or take away something which is supposed to be there, thats when it goes pear-shaped, so theres a purpose for every species. I think its important that children are taught this.

Do the animals bite?

An animal will generally only bite for one of two reasons - either it thinks you are a threat, or it thinks you are food.

The animals I have are used to being handled, and I would always make sure that a new animal had its tolerance built up by gradually increasing handling before anyone else touched it.

Animals have very sensitive senses of smell, so it is important to wash your hands before handling them so they dont think your hand is food.

I've never had a complaint and I've never had an incident. I take a lot of pride in that. The animals' welfare is number one. By understanding the animals, you can make them feel happy.

These animals are dangerous - the snakes are theoretically strong enough to kill you - but they are used to being handled and I know when they are happy or not. I like to think that my animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Passing on my enjoyment of animals to other people is great. I dont think we are born with any fears. When we are working with groups, I try to encourage the youngest member to hold a scorpion or a tarantula, providing their parents are comfortable with it.

In the same way, phobias about animals are 100 per cent curable, if the person wants to get over it. They are almost always to do with misunderstandings about animals. I break it down into small steps until they can hold the animal they were scared of and that is really rewarding.

It is important that children learn about animals. Research shows children who are nice to animals are also nice to people.

Whats the most difficult or challenging aspect of your job?

I really love my job. The only issue for me is that keeping animals in captivity is difficult. I would rather animals are in the wild.

But all of mine have been born into captivity and therefore could never be released into the wild.

My animals welfare is my top priority. I have never met anyone who has been uncomfortable with the way mine are kept. They are all in a heated purpose-built enclosure with plenty of space. I also go to great lengths to ensure they have the right food - for example, one of the iguanas gets prickly pear.

Also, I do think there is a great educational value in captive animals. Children get to see species they would otherwise never get to see.

Tell us about the most interesting animals in your collection.

I have a Virginia opossum called Blossom, which is a really unusual and interesting species. They are marsupials and have a pregnancy of just 13 days, giving birth at a really early stage when the baby is the size of a kidney bean, then carrying it around in the pouch. They can have about 12 babies at different stages in the pouch at one time. They are quite evolutionarily primitive and have more teeth in their mouth than any other land mammal.

The meerkats are also amazing. They are just like people in a way. I have a little group and they such sociable animals. One of them, Maku, was rejected by his mother at four weeks old. I hand-reared him and he follows me everywhere. He has a lovely personality - he even did the Sport Relief Mile with me a couple of years ago.

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