He was "probably" hung over. A young man, sitting in a laboratory, reviewing footage of a burrow-nesting mountain chicken frog.

Once, when Kevin Buley was an unqualified high school biology teacher on a gap year in the Caribbean, he had feasted on this giant frog. It was a national delicacy. They served it at his leaving dinner.

How did it taste?

"Like . . . Chicken?" But he can't really remember. His big moment with one of the world's biggest frogs was yet to come.

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Because now, Buley has a degree in zoology and animal biology. He has a job at Gerald Durrell's Jersey Zoo working with reptiles and amphibians. And he's trying to solve a mystery.

Regular frogs release 30,000-50,000 eggs. The mountain chicken frog lays just 30-50. It is a frog that has been hunted and eaten and threatened by fungal disease. A volcano has blown on Montserrat and ash is smothering its habitat. Three females and six males have been transferred to a captive breeding programme at Jersey Zoo. Nobody knows whether this mercy mission will work, because because nobody really knows how these things breed or grow, underground on their foamy nests.

"How do you get from a 1.5mm egg to a 15cm tadpole?" asks Buley. "They spend their whole lives in this nest, until metamorphosis, when they come out as baby frogs . . . "

So zoo staff recreate burrows with drainpipes and plastic boxes. It's the 1990s, the video camera system is primitive, but: "I can still remember. I was probably quite hung over. I remember coming in and watching this female sitting on the nest and she was feeding her tadpoles through what we later coined as "butt milk". She was laying less than 100 eggs, but what she was actually doing was retaining tens of thousands more of them, and then using them to provision the nest.

"What I saw that morning was these tadpoles in a feeding frenzy, literally around her backside. The eggs were being squirted out, and the tadpoles were fighting each other and it was just incredible."

And that, says Buley, is the bit that gets you.

"You're looking at that and suddenly your hangover is gone and suddenly it's like 'oh my God - I'm the first person on the planet to have ever seen this'."

Last June, Buley became the director of Auckland Zoo. Sitting in his office, listening to this career-defining story, it's impossible not to get goosebumps. This is not a grand saga of lions and tigers, or a cute tale about a Nepalese red panda cub. No zoo ever ran a competition to name a tadpole. Who cares about frogs?

"For the first time, our work in the zoo was able to inform both the Montserrat and Dominican governments that having a hunting season that avoided these animals when they are breeding, would automatically protect the species.

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"The work you do in a zoo, the research and the science and the finding stuff out, has a direct impact on conserving species. That's why I cared."

The word Buley thinks best describes this ethos has, he says "no real equivalent in English, but it's kaitiakitanga [guardianship and protection]. And I think, with that, we're getting onto the essence of what zoos - a good, modern zoo - is all about."

In 2015, when a keeper died after being mauled by a tiger in Hamilton Zoo, animal rights group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) said it was "saddened but not surprised", because zoos gave people "the false idea that these animals are little more than cuddly kitties who can be used and abused for our entertainment". Zoos were a "living hell" denying animals the ability to "engage in any of the activities that give their lives meaning".

New Zealand's SAFE (Save Animals From Exploitation) recommends learning about wildlife through nature documentaries and the internet: "Do not go to zoos or wildlife parks and talk to your family and friends about why you oppose zoos."

On its website, which specifically references Auckland Zoo, the organisation says "zoos, especially, argue that they take part in important conservation work, educate the public, and provide animals with enriched habitats. In reality, the business model of zoos involves many things that have nothing to do with conservation or education and are more about keeping animals as living museum exhibits".

Remember the first time you went to Auckland Zoo? Buley has walked Canvas all the way to the back of the 96-year-old, 17ha Western Springs complex. Past the African savannah where "a sitting giraffe means it's happy", past the pink flamingos, blinking meerkats and newly acquired ostriches, which have surprised everyone with their penchant for pond swimming.

"Look at them," says Buley appreciatively. "If you took all their feathers off, they would be dinosaurs."

Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley says New Zealand wildlife would perish without conservation efforts. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley says New Zealand wildlife would perish without conservation efforts. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Last year, Auckland Zoo bred 1635 wetapunga and 58 threatened New Zealand birds for release back into the wild. It holds the only captive population of the world's most critically endangered amphibian, Archey's frog. Te Wao Nui opened in 2012, hosting 75 native animals (and 100 plant species). But what Buley wants to show us is the old elephant house. It has been converted into a cafe, but some features have been retained - including the huge, heavy, metal spiked doors.

"The original doors," says Buley. "In our lifetime."

He remembers his first visit to a zoo, back in the UK. "The most abiding emotion . . . was one of sympathy, rather than awe."

But, says the 47-year-old father of three, even a negative zoo experience can have a positive effect.

"All the good zoos in the world are not going to save the planet on their own. The people who visit zoos will save the planet. We are a conservation organisation, but the most important thing we do is develop connections with people. People who connect to animals are nicer people."

Can he prove that?

"Well, Hannibal Lecter didn't like . . . " but he stops short.

"In terms of social science, if you create connections and empathy in kids, then they are nicer kids and they turn into nicer adults. Increasingly, we have a problem - not just in Aotearoa, but globally - where people are becoming disconnected with nature."

Auckland Zoo contains 135 species and more than 1400 animals. Right now, one-fifth of it is under construction - a $50m Southeast Asian precinct that will include a climate-controlled dome replicating conditions in an Indonesian swamp forest is on track to open next year.

Buley reckons "95 per cent" of the world's zoos should be shut down.

"Developing country zoos will make you cry. You are talking about lions and tigers in cages not much bigger than themselves with concrete floors and baths. It's incredibly uncomfortable to see.

"There is a lack of understanding of what a good zoo is. There's a lack of empathy with animals . . . there's a lot of that 'we bought a zoo . . .'"

He rolls his eyes. "Good zoos are undermined by the lowest common denominator."
Last year, 698,045 people visited the zoo. According to Auckland Regional Facilities, 81 per cent of Aucklanders say the zoo "enhances their appreciation of wildlife".

That's important, says Buley, because: "If humans disappeared tomorrow, New Zealand's wildlife would disappear. It wouldn't recover, because your rats, your possums, everything that we're actively controlling at the moment that allows kakapo, takahe, saddleback to persist - all those species would disappear within a few years.

"It's only through ongoing management that so many species now persist on the planet. The skills that we've developed in zoos over the years are becoming more and more applicable."

Buley was born in Cornwall ("so not really English, strictly speaking") and raised in Devon, where his dad was the headmaster at a "public" (read: private) school. A high school biology teacher fostered his early love of wildlife, and that led to the teaching year in the Caribbean.

I'm a pink flamingo! (And he's Kevin Buley, Auckland Zoo director). Photo / Brett Phibbs
I'm a pink flamingo! (And he's Kevin Buley, Auckland Zoo director). Photo / Brett Phibbs

He gained a degree in zoology and animal biology from the University of Southhampton and went to Jersey Zoo as a volunteer when his girlfriend (now wife) got a job there. A temporary position in the reptile house led, eventually, to a role as head of herpetology. Why reptiles?

"Horses for courses! Or lizards for lizards . . . there is a real science to it, and that appealed in a way you wouldn't get with the birds and mammals side of it."

He came to Auckland eight-and-a-half years ago, via Chester Zoo, where he was the head of zoo programmes. He wears what looks like a koru around his neck, but it's a Celtic symbol for creativity made from Cornish tin. Komodo dragons are among his favourite creatures ("talk about nature finding a way!") and yes, he eats meat - "I am careful to eat welfare-friendly". One of the hardest aspects of zoo life? Communicating decisions around animal euthanasia.

In June last year, Auckland Zoo euthanised Kura, a 19-year-old lion whose health was in decline. It also put down her 17-year-old daughter Amira, saying the younger lion displayed stress and anxiety when separated from her mother, and that she would not be accepted or tolerated by another pride.

Buley: "Post-mortem examination revealed she had a lot of age-related conditions that would have been causing discomfort, if not pain."

But nobody knew, for sure, before the decision was made?

"We strongly suspected that, given her age, that she would . . . What does caring for an animal and animal welfare look like? You can look at the food, the veterinary care, the environment, but there is also the social and behavioural aspect . . . if one of those things is missing or compromised, it becomes increasingly difficult, and ultimately impossible, to provide that animal with a good life."

He thinks, perhaps, he won't answer a follow-up question about the human euthanasia debate.

"From an animal perspective, we often talk about it being the kindest, most amazing thing we can do for an animal that we have cared for, for years and years. It is also the most difficult thing, as somebody who cares for and loves animals.

"So from a human perspective, having seen how humans suffer - and I've had long, hard discussions with my father about this, he's a very religious man - so, yeah . . . there are obvious concerns and issues around human euthanasia and not least because the argument is a slippery slope when you might be in a future world with limited resources and overpopulation, at what point do you stand back and recognise it's no longer the choice of the individual to die?"

And if all of this seems more serious than what to name a new baby zebra or his ongoing joke about "shit zoos - not the little dogs", it's because ultimately zoos are serious.

Most visitors finish their tour with the tigers. But if you take a slight detour, you'll find the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine - aka the Vet Hospital. One room is stacked with plastic boxes, the kind with the clip-on lids you buy to store winter clothes and excess linen. They hold one of the world's last known populations of Chesterfield skinks. In 2018, when Cyclone Fehi destroyed almost half of their beachfront habitat just south of Hokitika, the Department of Conservation rescued the reptiles and sent 50 of them to Auckland Zoo. For the first time, they are being cared for in captivity. One day, it is hoped, they can be returned to a safer, wilder home.

"If we don't get it right," says Buley, "This is how we can end up."