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...
©DEBBIE HILL 2000