1. Did you dye your hair that colour to fit in with the orang-utans?
No! It's supposed to be really bright red but it's faded into a very 'ranga orange. The orang-utans didn't react to it in a positive or negative way when I did it but they're pretty blase about everything. They just don't care. The little ones did though. The siamang gibbon hated it. He suddenly became aggressive towards me and didn't want to be anywhere near me. It was quite hurtful actually.
2. Don't the orang-utans emote?
They look depressed all the time. They don't have any facial expressions. When you work closely with them you can see a glint in their eye or a millimetre movement of the lip but basically a depressed orang-utan looks the same as a happy orang-utan. They're a very introverted kind of animal. Solitary in the wild. We work hard to give them a lot of choices in their life. Choices in their food and environment and activities. That's the biggest thing to give them a chance for happiness.
3. What are all your tattoos about?
The first one I got at 18 and it's a Buddhist symbol. I came to Buddhism quite early, about 16 or 17, through being sick and just lying in bed for a really long time, listening to music and thinking. I developed ME (chronic fatigue) when I was 14 and really struggled with it for a few years before I had to give up school. It started by just being exhausted all the time. Couldn't get out of bed, no energy for anything, not even watching TV or reading. Giving up school was a relief because I had been struggling for so long and stressed about getting to school and doing exams and being normal. It's such an invisible illness, people don't get it. I lost my friends because they were out partying and didn't understand. I can't remember how the Buddhism came about. I probably Googled it. Acceptance is a big part of Buddhism and that's what I needed at that time. This tattoo here is a Buddhist phrase meaning the wisdom you seek is already inside you.
4. Does working with orang-utans alter your spiritual beliefs?
Most definitely, especially working with great apes over the last few years. Animals have it better than us in the way they are content with their lives. Humans are always on the quest for bigger, better, the answers to happiness. We're stuck in a culture of our own making that isn't getting us anywhere positive. Orang-utans are the Buddhas of the animal world. They seem to know the answer to the secret of life but are not willing to share it with us. Working with them has made me try to be content with the simple things in life. Friends. Companionship. Definitely not material things.
5. If they know the answer to life, how come they're in danger of extinction?
You asked me how life would be different if they ruled the world and that's the problem. They wouldn't want to rule. After sloths orang-utans are the most energy-conserving animal on the planet. They just eat enough to survive and nap and relax. Nothing else. That's probably their downfall because they can't fight back.
6. Are zoos really the place to keep them?
In an ideal world, all zookeepers wish we didn't have to have zoos for animals, that they were living in the wild. But they're here as advocates for their cousins, getting people to act on their behalf. Zoos are so much more than places for people to come and look at animals and laugh at them and throw things at them. They are not just here for entertainment. I get so offended for my animals when that happens. But it's worth the balance of keeping some animals in captivity to save their species as a whole. I have to believe that or I couldn't work here.
7. What's the difference, do you think, between animal-lovers and those of us who are a bit ambivalent?
I can't comprehend how you couldn't be an animal lover. You're missing out! You're missing out on such rich relationships you can have with animals. The unconditional love that you get from them. You can't get that anywhere else on the planet. Babies? I'd rather have baby animals any day.
8. How did you get out of bed and into working with animals?
My mum could see that I was depressed and really bored so she signed me up to be a foster parent for kittens for the SPCA. I'd wanted to be a forensic pathologist before I got sick but at my worst I thought I'd never work, even part-time. Suddenly I was surrounded by kittens all day. It gave me something to do, something to think about. And then I found a correspondence course in animal care and sent out lots of letters to vet clinics asking if I could do work experience with them. Slowly, somehow, the energy came back. I can't pinpoint when or how it went away but I've been fine for 10 years now.
9. Do you worry it will come back?
I remember reading that if you have ME for more than four years, you will have it forever. I always live in fear of that, even when I get just normal sickness I'm terrified that I'm back where I was. I'm a bit precious with my health, don't have too many late nights. Don't party. I don't push myself. I know where my limits are.
10. Were the orang-utans the perfect animal for you to work with then?
Yeah, they've very low energy themselves and they like a bit of quiet, stress free, mellow energy around them. Not like an elephant. You have to be always up and in control with an elephant. Orang-utans are great for me. Hence why I believe in the power of the universe. My life has worked out more perfectly than I could have imagined and it's not just coincidence.
11. Did you ever think you could change corporate behaviour with your palm oil campaign?
No! I just started a Facebook page because I was so fed up with what was happening [Cadbury using palm oil which has been blamed for the destruction of orang-utan habitat]. Within a few weeks we had 3500 signatures. Then the zoo joined in and it was a great headline 'Zoo Bans Cadbury'. I was at home when my friend texted to tell me Cadbury were changing and I think I cried. It was just utter disbelief and it was consumers who made the difference. Companies are terrified now of palm oil and being associated with it.
12. Has working with animals every day changed your human behaviour?
It's more my observation of human behaviour. I think we are all a bit ridiculous, including me. We're just glorified apes with better toys and more complex desires. It gets a bit weird when you can see animal behaviour, like a guy strutting past you trying to get your attention. Not that I'm immune to male displays.
Auckland Zoo's Orang-utan Caring Week, November 9-17