Animal house: Behind the scenes at Auckland Zoo

By Alan Perrott

A baboon at Auckland Zoo. Photo / Richard Robinson
A baboon at Auckland Zoo. Photo / Richard Robinson

They are the professional nurturers entrusted with the care of our most precious living things. Unless those living things have leaves.

"Someone else looks after those," says one of Auckland Zoo's keepers as we admire the greenery in the tearoom. "We're not trusted with pot plants, we kill them."

And to think we'd been theorising about how most keepers are women because of the caring aspects of the job.

This side of the 101-year-old institution fails to receive much television play, much like the kiwi show total disdain for the rock star treatment they get. And I say that because, just after slaving over a hot blender to prepare their next breakfast I saw how much of it ended up in the bin. Plenty.

Like truculent children, I'm guessing the kiwi push it around their plates a bit and then go back to digging up worms. Then when their fans turn up to admire them they hide in the shadows.

Fussy ingrates, no wonder they're endangered.

Still, their ample leftovers might give New Zealand birds keeper Natalie Clark the opportunity to indulge her craving.

After I'd blended exact measures of fruit, silverbeet, vegetable oil, powered bugs, supplements and soaked sultanas she dropped in a big bowl of minced ox heart and stuck her nose in the heady aroma. "Go on, have a sniff. One day I'm going to make burgers out of this, just to see what it tastes like."

Yummy, though she still reckons she'd never be able to work at a veterinary clinic because she has a weak stomach.

Every keeper I met talks like they have answered a calling. They're certainly not here for the money. Or the glamorous uniforms.

Or even the potential fame of featuring on TV One's The Zoo: "That's quite embarrassing," is the common response.

With the show having been sold all over the world there are regular requests from tourists to meet their favourite keeper, sometimes years after they've left.

And of course they secretly love it. As exotic birds keeper Suzie Paranihi says, "I might get up in a bad mood but I'll come in, say hello to the animals and my day's changed [she snaps her fingers] just like that. It beats working anywhere else any day."

So, there is a strong case to be made that working in a zoo is as much about looking after animals as hanging around them.

There's certainly no avoiding the idealism.

My day starts damp and earlyish, 8.15am actually, at the old kiwi house.

Her morning meeting over, Clark's daily regime is underway. She joined the permanent staff in late 2009 after completing the three-year training course at Unitech and still pinches herself that she sees kiwi every day.

We're checking up on the reluctant love birds, Nick and Matakai, who have been thrown together in the old kiwi house in the hope they'll make babies. Things are looking up; they've finally moved in together.

Such efforts have helped the zoo release 251 birds back into the wild. It's a small operation, says Clark, but it's the most rewarding.

Next, it's back to base to feed the blue penguins and get up close and unexpectedly personal with the kea and kaka.Who knew kea were such avid groomers?

It must be said that the $16 million New Zealand section, Te Wao Nui, is the most remote, but it's an essential stop-off and it's easy to see why it swept the 2012 Landscapes of Distinction Awards.

The only losers are the humans. The building still lacks a ceiling so summer temperatures can hit 35 degrees and doors and windows must stay shut otherwise it would mess with the air conditioning for the animals.

But that's not today's problem. There's no milk. Now, it might be fine to mess with an animal's routines to stop it from getting bored, but you don't mess with the people. Morning tea is always at 10.30am and you can't have morning tea without milk.

Luckily, handheld radios were invented for such emergencies, and Debra Searchfield is on the case.

The 35-year-old had failed in her first attempt at a zoo job after leaving school and instead spent the 90s in London working as an agent for fashion photographers. Despite having an exceptionally good time she hankered for a job she could "believe in" and returned home to a job running special events at the zoo. Watching the keepers then inspired her to get qualified and become one herself.

Not only did the job prove to be better than she expected, she instantly became the coolest mum at her daughter's school.

So, with fresh milk and cuppas in hand, the keepers settle down to talk about sex.

The stud in question is a recently arrived blue duck. "If I was a duck I'd shag him," one keeper says, to general agreement.

I think it's time to move on.

En route to visit the exotic birds, I run into the only zoo employee with a licence to kill.

He's Knapp, Craig Knapp, and he's tearing his hair out. His traps of death are empty. Again. It's been two weeks since he discovered a rogue rat had broken into one of the Te Wao Nui enclosures and it's been gnawing at the edges of the mesh netting ever since - which, unless stopped, threatens a pest invasion.

He's set up cameras and every type of trap in his arsenal, including the state-of-the-art Judas traps. A male rat was placed inside a cage in the hope the invader would drop by for a chat, then - zap - ex-rat. But this rodent is either exceedingly cunning or doesn't fancy the boys, so a plan is underway to find a female to play the stooge role and try again.

At least it's a change from herding cats. They are a constant problem, and the zoo keeps a register of the names and faces of those belonging to locals so the repeat offenders can be returned rather than shipped off to the SPCA.

Not that Chico the macaw has much to worry about. Any cat wanting a piece of this enormous bird risks getting its ear chewed off - he's quite the talker.

His latest catchphrase is "come on, Blake", which has been a mantra for the keepers dealing with his rambunctious cage mate.

"Yeah, we have to be really careful what we say around him," says his closest human friend, Asha Rodger, the exotic team's leader.

Right now he's preparing for a free flight, a chance to see a world without bars and allow the public to get close and maybe learn something new.

Standing among the amazed children is Brian Cairns. This 72-year-old has been a regular at the zoo since 1945 and can be found here every week with his camera. He reckons he's photographed almost every creature at least once. "Well, it's a lot more interesting than walking around the streets, there's something different to see every day. Just look at that, aren't they beautiful?" Snap, snap, snap ...

After a quick introduction to the section's latest resident, an extremely aged grey-headed flying fox named Maggie, who hangs inside a blanket, I'm back on food duty, making Chico's favourite kebab, a chunky combo of fruit, vegetables and marigolds on a spike.

It gives me a chance to chat with keeper Suzie Paranihi. The zoo is her happy place and, like many, she came into the job late. The 38-year-old started her working life as a receptionist, then moved into sales. As she'd also squeezed in some work experience at a vet clinic, she was offered a stint at the zoo, covering for someone on leave. When that finished someone else went on leave so she stayed a bit longer and so it went on.

Still, it took three cracks at getting a full-time job before she joined permanently. "I love it. It's not a glamorous job - you end up dirty every day, so there's no point worrying about hair or makeup [the only personal decoration I saw all day was some chipped, blue nailpolish] - but you do end up working with similar types to yourself."

And you get cool work stories that make great party icebreakers, even if the first question everyone apparently asks is whether you work with the lions and tigers.

Which brings me to the pointy part of the zoo. Kathryn McKee has been working in the Pridelands section for nine years, after spells veterinary nursing and making Lisa's Hummus.

She now looks after cats, even though she's a total dog lady. There's a boxer carving hanging around her neck, boxer rings on each hand, and tattoos of her two boxers on her left calf.

If those other zoo sections are fuelled by idealism, hers runs on paranoia.

Being a few metres from instant death all day every day will do that to a person. One glance at their blood-soaked playroom certainly sent a tingle down my spine. That door is locked, isn't it?

"Safety is drummed into us here. [The animals are] only doing what's natural, but it only takes one silly mistake and that's it: game over." There was an incident a few years back where a keeper had a leg shredded when a big cat got its razor-sharp claws on him.

"It's an awareness you end up taking home, as well. I find I'm always looking at the fences to see if anything's coming, checking the locks and I have a two-door security system for my dogs."

Right now her pride of lions is lounging massively by the back gate. They're
close enough for us to notice they've been rolling in dung.

Smells are toys to the cats and the keepers continually introduce new scents to entertain them. Today their den reeks of garlic.

The one to really watch is Amira, she's the hunter and happily stalks any ducks that fly within reach. "If [the ducks] are stupid enough to do that, they get what's coming," says McKee. "But if a chicken gets in there, I will try to get it out. That's not fair."

But the risk of being eaten aside, she says her job is more like farming. Everything in Pridelands is big, heavy and labour-intensive.

It's time for the giraffe encounter, an opportunity for boggle-eyed children to feed the highest mouth they've ever seen.

Except Zabulu's not playing along and, no matter how vigorously the zoo volunteers shake their food buckets or how piteous the children's entreaties become, he's just sitting in a puddle, with half-lidded eyes.

By all accounts he had a lusty time with his lady friend last night. Fifteen times. I'm not sure if should be impressed by his performance or worried that someone counted.

McKee just takes it in her stride. Animals set the agenda here, even behind the scenes where Harold, Pridelands' ever-strutting peacock, gives way to no one.

"I'm with animals all day and then I've got my dogs when I go home as well. It's not that I prefer animals to people - I'll put it this way, there are bad people out there and they get to choose to be bad, but if an animal does something bad it's because it's doing what comes naturally and because we've made a mistake."

I don't think the rat-catcher is so sentimental though.

But after all I've seen and heard, I suspect the animals are only half the reason the zoo is rarely short of recruits.

Consider Ray and Barbara, two of 200-odd, red-jacketed volunteers (and they always need more) who do everything from the dishes to guiding people to the nearest loo. As with many, they started off looking for something to do after retirement.

So, what keeps bringing them back week after week, and paying for the pleasure out of their own pockets?

"There's a real sense of community," says Barbara. "Not only with the staff, you also get to know the people who come along every week. I think it's because we all share a common interest. It's like a family."

"Definitely," agrees Ray. "It's the people, the camaraderie. That's the best part for me. Everyone loves being here, so what's not to enjoy?"

I just hope someone remembers to water the pot plants.

Craig Knapp reports that last Saturday he caught not one, but two female rats, plaguing the New Zealand birds' enclosure. He will continue with the traps and cameras to make sure he's got them all.

- NZ Herald

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