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Profile of a Zookeeper
by Debbie Hill

I met Phil Stifman on one of the sunniest days so far this year. He was wearing a woollen hat, a cheeky grin and sounded suspiciously like an Essex Boy. I was right. He confessed to having been brought up in Epping Forest as I grilled him about his life in an office he shares with various lizards, a tortoise and a tarantula skin, that stared ominously down at me from a shelf above his desk.

Working as Head Keeper for Newquay Zoo, Phil is a lively and laid-back personality - lucky since his pivotal role involves representing the zoo by dealing face-to-face with the public and their queries. Dressed in his blue overalls, he seems a real outdoors type of guy and checking animal enclosures and wandering around overseeing the running of the zoo really suits him.

Unlike in most zoos, Phil goes into the enclosure with the Diana monkeys to feed them. Having built up a rapport with a particular monkey he has christened Paddy, he is at ease with wild animals and has a photo of himself wrestling with a hand-reared tiger that one of his friends just happens to keep in a circus trailer. A bit of a joker, he remarks that none of his friends would have believed him if he couldn't provide the photographic proof. And he's quite right - they probably wouldn't.

Marine animals are of particular interest to Phil as he has worked in the Shetlands, helping Greenpeace save seals after an oil tanker disaster. Well liked by the owner of Newquay Zoo, Mike, Phil also once worked at Gweek Seal Sanctuary where Mike was a share-holder. When Mike later bought Newquay Zoo, he contacted Phil - who had temporarily moved back to Essex - and offered him a job as Head of Maintenance and from there Phil worked his way up the ranks to become Head Keeper. Dedicated to his job in his spare time, Phil often picks animals up from other zoos and liaises with other animal organisations to ensure that Newquay Zoo is at the forefront of animal welfare.

Accompanying Phil around the zoo and watching him interact so naturally with the Diana monkeys, I thought how odd it is that he spent so much of his working life indoors or working cooped up in a warehouse. His first job, which lasted four years, was in analytical chemistry, testing things in a laboratory for a Print company. He followed this with a two year spell at Ozalids in the Quality Control Laboratory, five years warehousing for Proctor and Gamble and several years working for a German company doing International Freight forwarding.

Unquestionably it seems that a large part of his working life has led to the attainment of a high level of physical fitness. When questioned about his extra-curricular activities, he confessed, almost sheepishly that although he fenced and practiced aikido intensively for six years whilst living in Essex, since moving down to Cornwall he has let his fitness activities fall by the wayside.

Phil now lives alone in Camborne, remarking with a wry smile and the typical smoothness of an Essex man that he has many women admirers. A divorcee, he has a young daughter, Krystal, from his marriage and whilst very charismatic and clearly capable of attracting women, seems content with his bachelor status. A genial character, nothing seems to phase him and, when prompted, he admitted that he very rarely loses his temper. Indeed his spare time seems to be too full for him to be worried about the lack of a partner.

A complete techie, Phil spends much time on his computer e-mailing, video-conferencing and surfing the internet. When he indulges in outdoor pursuits he collects rocks, flies kites and goes sea-fishing, although having never heard the rumours of the Padstow Great White Shark he was happy to acknowledge that it might exist.

Teased at school about his unfortunate surname, Phil was a hardworker whose life's motto is his old school motto: Let us strive. Whilst attending Luctons Boys Secondary Modern School, he enrolled in evening classes at Loughton College of Further Education to learn chemistry. Originally wanting to become a photographer he then went to North East London Polytechnic where he, along with most of his class, struggled to complete a City and Guilds in Scientific and Technical Photography. Failing and repeating both the second and final years of the course lengthened the course to five years and I wondered whether the length of the course had led Phil to apply for a job in chemistry rather than photography but on this point he was evasive and left me curious.

Obviously someone who likes to be a little mysterious, he smiles to himself and sometimes answers my questions with the slow and deliberate air of one who is trying to fox you and send you off on the wrong trail. At other times, he is more direct and comments frankly that his pet dislike is sarcasm and people who think they know everything. Just as he is opening up about himself, he is summoned by his radio and informs me that he has to go. Ever the gentleman, he opens the door for me as I leave. Wonder what he's up to...


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