London Zoo internship demands you have a Master's degreeSIX-MONTH ROLE IN LONDON PAYS JUST £5 PER DAY FOR LUNCH


>> Ooh! This story has picked up by London’s Evening Standard, the Guardian and the Independent

A six-month, unpaid London Zoo internship has angered science graduates after the zoo made clear it expects applications from people with a Master’s degree. The “exciting opportunity” pays just £5 per day for lunch plus travel expenses (for interns living in London).

Despite offering no salary, London Zoo makes clear that only highly-qualified graduates will be considered for the project, which concerns the threatened pangolin, a species of scaly anteater. “Candidates should ideally have excellent written communication skills and attention to detail, and an undergraduate or Masters level degree in biology, conservation or a related subject,” the advert states. Here is the advert in full, for a ‘IUCN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group Intern’:

ZSL London Zoo internship

Graduate Fog shares graduates’ disappointment that such a long internship requiring specific qualifications and knowledge is unpaid.

While the London Zoo’s dedication to animal welfare is commendable, the same cannot be said for its commitment to the welfare of its own junior staff. Unless they have significant financial support from their family, interns taking up this opportunity will find themselves working seven-day weeks (including evenings) to have a hope of covering even their basic living costs.

This is what happened when we contacted ZSL – the people who run London Zoo – to ask them to explain why the role is unpaid…

The pangolin: Untroubled by the need to pay rent in London

The pangolin: Blissfully untroubled by the need to pay rent in London (Picture by Piekfrosch)

To: ZSL London Zoo
From: Graduate Fog

I run the graduate careers website Graduate Fog. One of our readers has just alerted me to your advert for a six month IUCN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group Internship at London Zoo.

Please can you explain how you can justify that this position being unpaid? As you’re no doubt aware, London is a very expensive city, and it is surely unreasonable to ask anybody to work for free when the cost of living is so high. In not paying wages for this role, you are also ensuring that it is out of reach to all but those whose family have the financial means to support them living in London for six months without earning.

While ZSL’s commitment to the survival of endangered species – including the pangolin – is admirable, it would be good to see a similar commitment to the welfare of your own junior staff, who need money to survive.

I will be blogging about this tomorrow so I look forward to hearing from you shortly.

Many thanks,


ZSL London Zoo replied:

To: Graduate Fog
From: London Zoo

Hi Tanya

ZSL London Zoo is the base for international conservation charity the Zoological Society of London. Like others in the charity sector, we value the time donated by volunteers willing to help us achieve our mission. We ensure that voluntary opportunities offer valuable experience and personal development, with many former placements leading to conservation careers at ZSL or other leading NGOs. We cover travel expenses within the Greater London area and provide a daily lunch allowance.

Kind regards

Human Resources

We weren’t very impressed, so we wrote back:

To: ZSL London Zoo
From: Graduate Fog

Dear Human Resources,

Thanks for your email but I’m afraid I found it rather dismissive and I expect Graduate Fog’s readers will too.

Is ZSL aware that in making this an unpaid role, it can only be taken by a candidate who has significant financial backing from their family and / or somewhere to live in London rent-free? Do you feel this is a fair and open recruitment policy?

Also, I would like to challenge whether this truly is a ‘volunteer role’, as you state it is 4 or 5 days a week, and presumably this person will have regular hours?

If you are expecting them to work in their days ‘off’ from this internship, they will be working up to 7 days a week, perhaps days and evenings in order to make anywhere close to the necessary money to fund their living costs during this internship.

I appreciate that ZSL is committed to doing a great deal of excellent work for the welfare of animals. However, I urge you to remember that the welfare of your young staff is also extremely important.

I look forward to hearing from you.


This time a named Media Manager replied, still failing to explain how this was a fair and accessible opportunity to candidates from all backgrounds:

To: Graduate Fog
From: London Zoo

Dear Tanya,

The advertisement for the volunteer internship at the Zoological Society of London is to support our conservation efforts to save the pangolin, a project in partnership with the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

As an international conservation charity with limited grant funding for this project, we are grateful for the donation of time from our dedicated volunteers and are appreciative of whatever availability they have. This role is flexible to suit the candidate — it does not have fixed hours or working days, and we cover travel expenses within the Greater London area and provide a daily lunch allowance.

The role is not exclusive to undergraduates or Masters students, and will provide fantastic experience in a global conservation organisation and unparalleled networking opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in this field.

Kind regards,

As regular readers of Graduate Fog know, charity internships like this are perfectly legal in the UK. The minimum wage law states that while interns with regular hours and set responsibilities, doing proper work for private companies are classed as ‘workers’ (who must be paid at least the minimum wage), interns at charities can be classed as ‘voluntary workers’ — and these need not be paid.

ZSL claim this is a 'volunteer' role - but interns can't live on thin air

ZSL claims this is a ‘volunteer’ role – but interns can’t survive in London on thin air

However, in recent years concerns have been raised that many charities — particularly the big ones — are taking advantage of this legal loophole and using it to secure unlimited free labour, usually from graduates desperate to gain experience in the charity sector. 

As with all unpaid internships, not only does this create financial hardship for those who do them, it also excludes those who can’t afford to do them.

The young man who tipped us off about the advert is one of many qualified, talented graduates who would love to take up this opportunity — but says he simply can’t afford to. Speaking to us anonymously (as he still hopes to work for ZSL one day and doesn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker) he called the internship “disheartening” and “a sad state of affairs for ZSL.” He explained:

“Having seen first hand the majesty of a pangolin in its natural environment, and having the greatest respect for ZSL, I was about to jump at the chance of helping to save them. However, my need to preserve myself (through providing food and a roof over my head) outweighs my drive to help save this charismatic and endangered species. That is a sad state of affairs for ZSL.

“A volunteer position of this sort has the potential to provide valuable experience that will help resent graduates or people who have just completed an MSc or PhD transfer into the conservation sector. Unfortunately only those who are lucky enough to live at home with very understanding parents are able to take advantage of this opportunity. It is not possible to live in greater London for 6 months when your only income covers travel and £5 for lunch, unless you live as a homeless person outside Camden Town tube station.

“I understand that they don’t have much money but these sorts of positions are what stifle social mobility, not access to university. It’s access to experience that is crucial to get a foothold in the jobs market.”

A number of charities have been questioned about their ethics of their use of unpaid interns, including the National Trust, the British Institute of Human Rights and the Globe Theatre. In 2012, Labour MP Hazel Blears tried to close this loophole, but her attempts failed.

Is it fair that charities needn’t pay their interns – or should the legal loophole be closed so that young people receive a fair wage for their work, and valuable opportunities are open to all? Have you done an unpaid internship at London Zoo – or would you love to but you can’t afford it? Share your views below!

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