Volunteering with Suntrap

Last weekend Tom and I headed down to London to help out with the Suntrap “Meet the Animals” stand at Walthamstow Garden Party.

First, a little more about Suntrap Forest Education Centre. Suntrap is a council-owned environmental education centre in Epping Forest just outside London. The teachers there run workshops to get schoolchildren learning and playing outside, including den building, forest walks, pond dipping, “meet the animals” sessions, camping and much more. Since I first moved away from the little rural village where I grew up I’ve realised that lots of children don’t just automatically get to do these things and the centre plays a crucial role in bringing nature into people’s lives at an early stage.

You can learn more about Suntrap on their website or their Twitter page.

The 16th and 17th of July saw the Walthamstow Garden Party take over Lloyd Park, a celebration of music, food, craft and entertainment. (Lloyd Park is also the home of the William Morris Gallery, if you want to be extra cultured.) Suntrap held a stand in the mini garden party aimed at younger visitors and alongside the rest of the team we introduced them to Cynthia the corn snake, two hissing cockroaches, salamanders, stick insects, giant African snails and a tolerant millipede.

Tom and Cynthia. Neither smiles in photos.

We tell the children what the animals are, where they live in the wild, what they eat and any cool facts that might grab the kids’ attention. The hissing cockroaches’ defence mechanisms are a good one to explain but the cockroaches quickly realise they’re not in any danger and stop hissing so people just have to trust us! A massive part of the workshops are also allowing the children to touch the animals, hold them and realise snakes aren’t slimy, bugs aren’t scary (although the jury is out on spiders) and how to be gentle and considerate of the animals.

Mr Hissing Cockroach

I have to admit I love watching people’s reactions, whether they’re super excited or grossed out by the animals. Last year I felt I was guilty of hogging the snake section (my personal favourite but also I suspect Tom’s) so this time I mostly “worked with” the cockroaches. The stand got very busy so I stood just outside it and people would come up without realising what was in my hand, or they’d assume he was a toy and be surprised to find he was a real cockroach! Very small children had to be prevented from putting him in their mouths but most were happy to hold him or, as the fantastic sunny weather warmed him up, let him climb up their arms.

I did get to do some time with Cynthia although as you can see, like the bugs she was getting very warm and wriggly. The animals did get a break between the two sessions each day to cool off away from sticky little hands and we also came up with creative ways to give them some relief once we took them home for the day. Witness: the salamander bath.

(It’s a ramakin.)


Of course, the welfare of the Suntrap animals is a really high priority and I don’t want to give the impression they only got cared for at the end of the day. All the children are really carefully instructed on how to behave towards the creatures, for example never touching the cockroaches antennae or wetting their hands before holding a salamander.

I didn’t realise at first that volunteering with Suntrap would be relevant to my veterinary studies, especially as it was a series of chances that got me helping out there – Tom’s mum works at Suntrap and he has always “volunteered” so ever since we got together I’ve been going too. When we used to have nice long uni holidays we got to do more workshops with visiting schools or groups wheras now we get to do the garden party and the open day. I really enjoy the time we spend doing Suntrap things and what’s more it has taught me loads about the care of exotic pets (including the time I accidentally cut the tail off a frozen mouse and dropped it, oops) and another work environment where animals are found. So by complete accident – or maybe because my whole life is geared towards messing about with animals – I got some more work experience!

Thanks for reading and I hope you had an equally happy weekend!


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