Local animal lover to become zookeeper for the day

A 58-year-old animal lover from Oldham has been given the opportunity to fulfil his childhood dream of being a zookeeper after friends and family successfully nominated him for the Mayor of Oldham’s Truly Wished project.

Stephen Exton, who lives in Lees with his wife Michaela, has dreamt of working with animals ever since he was 14 when he applied for a role at Chester Zoo.

Now thanks to Cllr Zahid Chauhan’s efforts in making wishes come true for local people during his Mayoral year, Stephen was recently surprised with a ‘Keeper for the Day’ experience at Blackpool Zoo.

This comes after Stephen was put forward to Truly Wished in recognition of his dedicated support and involvement as a local Cubs, Scouts and Beevers Leader for the last 40 years.

The community leader has also helped to organise the annual Whit Friday Band Contest in Lees and events at Leesfield Primary School, while he’s also been known to wear a special suit during the festive season too.

The Mayor gave a presentation to Stephen in front of applauding local families during a weekly Beevers gathering at St Edwards Church.

Stephen, who also works as a District Nurse, will now support zoo staff in caring for some of the world’s most treasured animals, as well as helping to prepare and deliver tasty treats for wildlife including monkeys, penguins and tigers during his stay.

Reacting to the news, Stephen said: “I’m very honoured to receive this from the Mayor, I cannot believe it.

“I don’t do what I do for awards or any plaudits, I do it because I enjoy it but I’m truly overwhelmed.

“I’ve always had a strong love for animals and since the age of four, I’ve always had dogs, cats, and fish.

“I’ve loved visiting the zoo too, so I’m really looking forward to this, especially seeing the elephants.”

‘Ecky’, as Stephen is also known, has played a big role in the lives of many children and young people over the years, including the now District Commissioner of Oldham’s Scouts, Chris Hadfield, who he led many years ago.

In a short speech, Chris added: “Stephen’s been there not only for my family but everyone’s family over the years.

“He’s had a massive influence in the way that I behave to others, and the way that made me into the man I am today.

“I can’t express my gratitude to Stephen and he’s definitely the first person who I looked to pick, to become my right-hand man as we move forward with transforming scouting,

“I couldn’t think of anyone better and I’m sure he’s going to do us proud again.”

Speaking after his surprise visit, the Mayor of Oldham said: “Oldham is full of inspirational people like Stephen and I am delighted, through my Mayoral Committee, to have granted his wish of becoming a zookeeper for the day.

“It was wonderful to see the happiness in his eyes, and he is so deserving of this after many years of devotion to his local community and the children of our borough.

“This is what Truly Wished is all about – giving something back to our residents – and I hope this inspires others to come forward too so we can bring even more joy to the people of our borough.”

People in Oldham can put someone forward that they know from the borough to Truly Wished who they believe warrants their wish to become a reality. 

As part of the process, people must explain why the person has been nominated, what their wish would be and how it would make a difference to that person’s life. 

Examples could include someone who is really struggling and is in need of a long overdue pick-me-up, or someone who selflessly cares for the needs of others before their own and is deserving of a night off to enjoy a fantastic dining experience.

All wishes up to a maximum value of £500 will be eligible for consideration, with the final decision on which ones are granted being made by Action Together in partnership with the Mayor’s Mayoral Committee – with no involvement from the Mayor himself.

Nominations will be open until 1 March 2024 and individuals can only nominate a person once.