CLAIRE Bennett still recalls the day Colchester Zoo’s manager called her into his office and asked if she would like to try working with the elephants.

It was a bit of a step up from her previous roles caring for buffaloes, zebras and goats, to name just a few, but how could she say no?

And so she entered the jungle and took on her exciting role as an African elephant zookeeper, a job she has held for almost 20 years now.

“Since that moment I have never looked back,” admits Claire, who starting working at the attraction in Maldon Road in 1994.

“Before working with the elephants, I had worked with many different species and had spent several years working on the farm section with shire horses, buffalo, zebra, anoa and goats, to name just a few.

“This gave me amazing knowledge and experience, setting great foundations in my early career.

“I remember the day when the zoo manager called me in to his office and asked if I would like to try working with the elephants.”

Change has been something Claire has become accustomed to since embarking on her riveting career, but there has been no time more turbulent than the past two years.

Colchester Zoo’s future hung by a thread as it was forced to close the park gates when the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged through the nation.

But the much-loved family attraction was never going to be left to die if residents had their way, and they swooped in to raise more than £100,000 to support its running costs as footfall was non-existent.

Claire said: “I have had the privilege to watch the zoo grow and improve throughout the years and be a small part of a very special zoological collection.

Dedicated - Claire Bennett has cared for Colchester Zoos elephants for almost 20 years and has loved every second Picture: Colchester Zoo

Dedicated - Claire Bennett has cared for Colchester Zoo's elephants for almost 20 years and has loved every second Picture: Colchester Zoo

“Every day, I feel incredibly lucky to get to spend time and share my life with such incredible animals. I try very hard to never take it for granted as every moment with the elephants is so special.

“I love the fact that we, as keepers, can make a difference to our animals’ lives and get the chance to educate visitors in what we do.

“Two of our elephants came from a circus many years ago and it has been incredible to watch them grow in confidence and see their trust with us develop over the years.

“There isn’t anything I least like doing in my role, but of course it’s very hard having to say goodbye to an animal when they are moving to another collection, but we know it is for the good of the breeding programme and it is very important to be part of that.”

But it’s not just mental strength needed to undertake the job, Claire explains, it is also a gruelling daily effort to keep things ticking.

“It can take its toll on your body, but the commitment is always worth it,” she added.

“Elephants such as ours are such amazing animals for many different reasons, but the thing that fuelled my passion for working with them is their immense intelligence and the fact they are not like any other animal in my opinion.

“After almost 20 years, they never fail to still surprise me with their personalities and their abilities.

“I can’t say I have a favourite elephant - they are all so different and I have different relationships with each of them, much like a friend or family member.

“If I wasn’t a zookeeper, I’m not sure what I would be doing.

“I dreamt of doing this job for as long as I can remember and know how lucky I am to have that dream come true.”