For some it’s a dream job – going to work everyday in a place that the rest of us visit for fun on the weekend or during the holidays – but for Sean McKeown, Director of Fota Wildlife Park, it’s a reality. Born in Monaghan, the Director of Ireland’s sixth favourite tourist attraction (according to Failte Ireland) has had a circuitous and a self-confessed “accidental” route to Fota Wildlife Park.
While studying Zoology in Trinity College Dublin, McKeown, did a project in Dublin Zoo and it all took off from there.
“I did my final year project in Dublin Zoo on parasites in cheetahs,” he says, “and from that I got to know the director and all the staff and a job came up as an assistant to the director in reference to animal care. I was asked to go to the interview even though I was still in college and I had three months to go before my final exams. I went to the interview anyway, got the job and became assistant to Terry Murphy, the Director. He was very well known locally and also internationally at that time. Even when I was a young lad I remember he had done television shows on the zoo and other things like that.”
Despite reaching this position at such a young age, McKeown maintains that he never really planned to move into that side of things.
“When you’re doing zoology you think of maybe going of to Africa or to South America. I was always more practical-minded. I grew up on a farm. From those reasons I had an interest in animals, but it wouldn’t have been the traditional thing for a Zoology student to do.
His role at Dublin Zoo prepared him for an eventual role at Fota because, as he learned, a Director’s job often means dealing with a different type of animal altogether. “When I was there I worked the gate and I had to learn the trade of what was involved in working in a zoo. I did everything basically from education to PR and gradually it got to the stage where I was running the zoo in the director’s absence. At that level I was dealing less and less with animals and more with people. I had to make decisions. It’s more about managing people and dealing with publicity and television. It was really the management side of things.”
McKeown was asked to come to Fota in 1980. It was the 150th anniversary, he remembers, of what was then the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland. “It was decided that year that to mark the anniversary they wanted to open a place that would give animals more space. They had been looking at a number of areas and, as it happened, UCC bought the land at Fota and all of a sudden, the two ideas came together and we had a wildlife park.”
Fota, according to McKeown, is different to any other park or zoo but when they opened, there was a bit of criticism.
“People wanted to see lions and tigers and elephants,” he says, “but this wasn’t the concept we had. We wanted to keep animals in bigger areas and we didn’t have the money to build enclosures for elephants and lions and we wanted a place where you can walk around and come into contact with animals like kangaroos, capybaras and ring-tailed lemurs.
“We were one of the very first zoos in Europe to have species roaming free. In some ways we pushed the boundaries. Being able to walk through the giraffes area, you wouldn’t see that anywhere else in the world. People didn’t believe that you could do this sort of thing. We used to try things and we decided we’d just have to try things, trial and error.”
After 14 years at Fota, McKeown was approached by a Sheikh from Dubai who had visited Fota and wanted to replicate the conditions there in his 60-acre private garden. “I spent about 14 years in Dubai. It was his own private garden and there were gazelle, cheetahs and other animals there. We had the largest collection of gazelle in the world and used to send other animals to France, England, Germany and all from just two Arabian Oryx when we started.”
By the time he left, he said, they had finished their development of the park and it was then the opportunity opened up again at Fota. “My family had moved back to Ireland for third-level education. I used to come back for a month or six weeks in the summer, at Christmas for two weeks and my wife would come out twice a year with the kids. This opportunity arose, however, and I took it. I was sad leaving, but I was sad leaving for Dubai originally too.”
Now, since he returned in April, it’s been all change at the Park. “We had developed so much here that when I returned, it really hadn’t developed any more. There hadn’t been a huge change. That encouraged me to come back and push things on, there was an impetus for change and I like that.”
This interview appears in the Cork Independent August 19th
Interview by Peter Tobin