An animal lover who has lived in Edinburgh Zoo for 27 years is being immortalised in a children’s book by a group of illustrators.
Darren McGarry, 44, is lucky enough to have a job that most children can only dream of. He fell in love with Edinburgh Zoo during family visits as a child, and went on to secure a job there when he was just 16 years old.
After two years, he moved into the grounds to live among the animals full-time, and is now the site’s head of living collections.
His extraordinary job, which has allowed him to live at the zoo for the majority of his life, has seen him pet koalas and bounce a baby panda on his knee.
And now a group of art students are turning his incredible life into an illustrated book for children.
Darren, 44, said: “I’m the man who lives in the zoo. A lot of people think that’s quite strange, a man who lives in a zoo. But because I’m head of the animal collection at Edinburgh Zoo, it’s part of my job to be here, as well to make sure everything is working properly 24 hours a day.
“It’s like a village that closes down at night and you can walk around and see the animals in a whole other way.
“When you have people come to visit you at night, they always get excited when they hear the animals like the lions roar in the dark.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been living there full-time for the last 27 years.”
Darren went on: “Some people work with animals because they don’t want to work with people, but I’m not mental – I have a lot of respect for humans.
“But I like that animals never want to do anything nasty to you.”
He first thought about working at the zoo when a careers officer visited his school, and he then managed to secure a placement.
He started to work with the animals in 1986 through a government youth training scheme which paid £17.50 a week and gave him on-the-job experience.
He was taken off the scheme early, but there was a position going for a full-time keeper for the hoofstock section, to look after animals such as the antelopes, deer and rhinos.
Since then, his experience of being the zoo’s full-time human resident has led him to handle a variety of exotic animals.
And his life has inspired 26 different illustrators to take up the challenge of creating a children’s book based on his job.
With special access to roam the zoo and a sleepover to experience the sounds of the night, Edinburgh College of Art illustrations students started to put their novels together.
He discussed many of his stories with the students and was amazed at the many interpretations that emerged on paper.
Darren said: “It was very exciting for me, and I think after the first couple of meetings when I met the students I could feel they were really excited about it and they asked me lots of questions. I think it’s been a fantastic process.
“A lot of my stories contain stuff when I was the head keeper of the large hoofed animal section. A lot revolved around the rhinos I worked with.
“I have sat and held a koala, I have had a panda on my knee when I was out in China at the panda centre – lots of envious things that people would love to do.”
Darren says that life in a zoo is different every day, which makes the early mornings easier to cope with.
Among his favourite animals are the pygmy hippos, antelopes and deer, but most of all he hopes for the birth of Scotland’s first baby panda.
He said: “The thing that gets me up in the morning is that each day is different.
“I have a lot of respect for animals and I love working with them, but for me it is about making a difference in the world. In my small way, I know I have helped make a difference.
“I have been involved in the captive breeding of endangered species, involved in educating people about the animals we have on our planet, involved with fundraisers and charity events and working with the community to bring the zoo much closer to people.”
Darren said a personal career highlight would be to see a panda born at the zoo.
He said: “We would love to have a baby panda. That would be really important. A big part of our panda breeding programme is to have a baby panda at the end of it.
“We try our best and each year we learn much more about panda biology and eventually we will get there, I am quite sure of that.”
A public vote in the summer will decide which book will be put forward for publication.
Edinburgh Zoo will host the Man Who Lives in the Zoo Day and give visitors the chance to chat with Darren and listen to readings of the 26 stories on May 9.