My progress up the learning curve was slow to begin with.
‘What’s this?’ Oscar would ask, holding up another grey rubbery four-legged shape and I’d say, ‘Velociraptor?’
‘Torosaurus! What’s this?’
Oscar, like a lot of children, was crazy about dinosaurs. It’s a rich topic and led us to Charmouth, searching and finding dino poo as well as the usual belemnites and ammonites, to the Natural History Museum to see the skeletons, and to Cardiff to see the Woolly Mammoth – Oscar cried when it moved and we had to leave. Not the slightly bit interested in learning to read, it was the non-fiction dinosaur books that gave him the motivation and like all new readers with an interest he didn’t stop. When his Reception teacher, the lovely Mrs Wallis, tried to take a lesson on the subject, Oscar corrected her, and proceeded to give a short lecture. Any excuse and Oscar would slip into his dinosaur costume, and packing for holidays would mean careful negotiation about how many, what size and which one in the hand luggage. Everyone knew about his obsession, and most tried to avoid showing too much interest because he could go on . . . Except me. I didn’t know anything about dinos, but as my knowledge grew so did my fascination. Fast forward and I could name every model in Oscar’s crate.
For others, it’s a phase, but Oscar’s passion never waned. He still has a shelf of books with large print and pictures, mostly by DK, as well as two crates containing all the models, life-like and not, and posters and fossils galore. On his bed, there’s a huge Aladar – star of Disney’s take on pre-history.
His interest widened as he got older to include the evolutionary journey from the creatures of that day to this, and wildlife became his thing.
As soon as he turned sixteen, Oscar filled out the form to become a volunteer at Bristol Zoo Gardens. He applied three times in six months but each time was unsuccessful. The zoo, understandably, gets every would-be vet, zoologist and plain animal-lover from the South West knocking on the door.
May 2012 came and in stepped Twitter, advertising a paid position as . . . wait for it . . . Dino-keeper. Oscar got straight on it. The excitement in the house was palpable. Was a dream about to come true? The role was to talk to the public about a series of animatronic models that the zoo had flown in from Texas for the summer. It was full time but Oscar was doing AS levels, so was, with a bit of license, available. He applied and was invited for an interview, where he had to give a three-minute presentation on one of the dinosaurs. Slam dunk! Oscar is blessed with an easy manner, the ability to get on with people and absolutely no nerves ever, his knowledge was undeniable, surely it was a done deal? He chose Baryonyx, and practised his spiel in front of us in full safari gear with a series of props secreted about his person including a fish, a giant tooth and a magnifying glass. Fabulous.
Interview day arrived. There were ten candidates, all the rest graduates of either Drama or Paleontology. Gulp. Oscar went first and said it went well. Nine others followed. The shortlist of seven was announced and the unlucky three sent home. Oscar wasn’t one of them. So far so good. The second element was an interview in which Oscar had to choose from a selection of artefacts and talk about it. He picked a skull and explained all the features that led him to, correctly, identify the animal.
Back home, Oscar waited for the call, and so did we.
He didn’t get the post.
He was so despondent, there was nothing we could say to lift his mood. The others were all much older and had more life experience, but that didn’t make it any better for Oscar. He'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
It took a week for me to dare to share my idea with him.
‘Why don’t you write to them and ask if you could be a volunteer dino-ranger?’
Having been rejected so many times already, I don’t think Oscar thought there was a chance, but he emailed and, relief all round, they said he could be a volunteer two days a week throughout the summer. He was overjoyed. The fact that it was unpaid was utterly irrelevant. It was a fantastic lesson in the idea that it’s not how often you get knocked down but how you get yourself back up.
Oscar loved the job. On his second day the zoo got this email:
. . . we met a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable member of your team. I believe he was called Oscar and he was working in the fossil tent interacting with children of all ages whilst assisting them with the dig part of the exhibit. He was able to talk to a number of children at once and used his impressive knowledge to engage with them across the wide age span. He is an asset to your team. Please pass on our thanks as his involvement made the activity more enriching.
But it wasn't over yet . . .
The whole family picked Oscar up from work one day as we were going to Oxford. He got in and said, ‘do you want the bad news or the good news?’
‘Bad news,’ I said.
‘I’m not going to be a volunteer dino-ranger any more.’
‘I’m going to be a paid dino-ranger.’
He ended up working at the zoo from May 2012 until Christmas Eve 2013 in a variety of roles, fitting A levels in between. His last four weeks were as the Reindeer Keeper, complete with Christmas jumper.
I was thinking about the turn of events when, last Saturday I had an anxious few hours wondering where Oscar was.
Thanks to the experience gained at Bristol Zoo, he was offered an internship at a wildlife rehabilitation centre near Vancouver for four months. In the way that gap year students do these days he flew to Calgary so he could hook up with a few friends doing a ski season in Banff before starting work. He was due to leave on the overnight Greyhound at nine o’clock and travel on Highway 1 through the Rockies to be met at the other end by a volunteer from Critter Care, when the road was closed due to an avalanche warning.
Writers’ imaginations aren’t always helpful.
Oscar eventually arrived in Vancouver at five o’clock in the morning two days later. Everything was shut so he took a taxi to the only place he remembered from a trip there when he was nine years old – Stanley Park. (We saw beluga whales.) And rang me. He may know a lot about dinosaurs but there’s still some common sense that needs honing. Thanks to google, I found a Starbucks that was open at six o’clock. Five hours later he was picked up and is now, I’m pleased to say, at the centre. He’s allowed a shower every other day and his laundry day is Wednesday. We Skyped him last night and he looked fine. The dino-ranger is now keeper of bears, raccoons, opossums, coyote, beavers . . .
It’s been a journey I feel very privileged to have witnessed.
T. M. Alexander
Author of the Tribe books www.tribers.com