Despite many barriers in her way, a Cornish-based animal lover now works with lions, cheetahs, white rhino and elephants in South Africa.
In June, Nicola Congdon, 28, gave an inspiring and honest talk to graduating animal management and vet nursing college students at Duchy College Rosewarne.
Nicola, who lives in Falmouth, revealed some of the challenges and triumphs on her way to her dream job in South Africa.
“I was taking A-levels, but quickly realised that taking care of animals was my passion,” she said.
“However my entry into this profession didn’t run smoothly and after studying an entry level course I had to stop for a knee operation. Subsequently I wasn’t strong enough to care for the animals, but I never gave up on my dream.”
After two years of employment and persistence, Nicola returned to studying animal management full time at Duchy College Rosewarne.
From a young age Nicola had a passion for helping animals and even started an animal rescue centre at home.
“My family has always had a lot of pets so I learnt to care for them from a young age,” she explained.
“In 2005 I was bought a tarantula and bearded dragon and that was that I was hooked on looking after any animal!”
Nicola currently looks after African pygmy hedgehogs, tortoises, parrots, dog, cats, snakes, spiders, scorpions, birds, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, guinea pigs, skinny pigs, frogs, centipede, gecko and cockroaches.
Caring for all of these animals over the years has cost Nicola thousands of her own money.
Time has also been hard to come by for the new graduate as she explains she hasn’t stopped studying in seven years.
“After finishing my animal management course at Duchy College I went on to study a Foundation Degree in zoological conservation based at Cornwall College Newquay, Bachelor of Science in animal conservation science at Plymouth University and my Masters in zoo conservation biology also at Plymouth,” she explained.
It’s not just her studies and her rescue centre that have kept Nicola busy, every year since 2011 she has worked at a lion park in South Arica helping to hand rear lions, cheetahs, and recently Red Faced Spider Monkeys.
“In May I travelled with a group of zoo keepers from the UK to see the conservation work that is happening in Uganda and Rwanda,” she revealed.
“This included tracking chimpanzees, Rwanda’s endangered golden monkeys, mountain gorillas and rhinos. I have booked to go for two months next year to increase my experience and put into action some of my skills I have gained in my education.”
However Nicola’s care and support doesn’t just stop with animals in South Africa, she now helps to run a charity called Project Primrose that was initially set up to support an AIDs orphanage.
There are plans in the pipeline to widen the support they offer by funding another disability day centre in South Africa.
With numerous compassionate projects on the go it is easy to see that Nicola truly loves what she does.
“When people ask me where I see myself in five years’ time, I say working with animals, everything is animals,” she said.
“I am currently training to do animal assisted therapy to help me understand ways that the animals can help people who suffer with mental health and educational needs. I will then be able to tie my two passions together in South Africa, the children and animals.”
Carol Knight, Head of Campus at Duchy College Rosewarne, said Nicola is “such a hard working woman”.
“The perseverance she has shown and compassion for all living things has been really humbling,” she added.
“We have watched her career journey with great interest and pride, when Nicola returned to talk to our students this year it was amazing to hear her stories over the last decade.”
For more information on the animal management and vet nursing courses available at Duchy College Rosewarne visit www.duchy.ac.uk, for details on the zoology university course visit www.cornwall.ac.uk or call 0845 60 50 455.