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The curious can now go to Auckland Zoo to see operations on monkeys, hear the heartbeat of a tuatara or inspect polar bear parasites - and experience a world first.

The New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine, which opens today, will focus on how the health of animals, people and the environment are closely connected.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is to open the $4.6 million centre, which has already gained international interest.

Project leader and Auckland Zoo senior veterinarian Dr Richard Jakob-Hoff says conservation medicine is about connecting human health with the health of animals and the environment.

"It's about recognising that we're part of nature, and that what we do affects the health of other species, the environment, and ultimately ourselves."

Dr Jakob-Hoff said while there were similar centres overseas, this was the first national centre of its type and could one day be a world leader in conservation medicine.

It was six years in the planning and is self-funded, with one-third of funds contributed by the ASB Community Trust.

The centre will be a nationwide hub for wild animal treatment, research, diagnostic work and specialist teaching.

A public viewing gallery will at times allow zoo visitors to see the staff in action, operating on and caring for sick animals.

A surgeon might pop out to demonstrate how to stitch up a surgical cut with the proper knots, and under supervision let the public have a go on a piece of goat skin.

In the operating area, a camera will relay close-up shots of surgery on a large screen above the public gallery, and the surgeons will sometimes wear microphones and talk about the procedures.

What researchers are studying under microscopes in the laboratory can also be monitored from the viewing area.

The centre is located on the same site of the former zoo veterinary hospital, but is about three times its size. It provides pharmacy, x-ray and intensive care services along with a recovery room for the treated animals.

Animals up to the size of zebras can be operated on inside, but more commonly subjects will be monkeys, red pandas and otters.

This week the staff treated a springbok with conjunctivitis and a sea lion with a corneal lesion.

Some treatments are similar to what humans might expect.

An anaemic spider monkey was prescribed iron tablets, and an orangutan Panadol for suspected abdominal pain.

Alternative treatments are also recommended. The tiger was given bach flower remedy for separation anxiety, and an ape took evening primrose oil capsules for dry skin.

While the centre will initially care mainly for zoo animals, native species will increasingly be treated in conjunction with agencies such as the Department of Conservation.

Staff will also work in areas such as infectious diseases and carry out research.

Dr Jakob-Hoff stresses the centre will embody a holistic approach to focus on where ecological, human, and ecosystem health merge.

"You can lose sight of how everything is connected."

It would collaborate with various groups and share information.

Dr Jakob-Hoff says medical doctors already at times assist with the care of animals.

For example, a respiratory physician helped to treat an orangutan with a serious lung condition.

The zoo experts can in turn help by recognising wildlife diseases, such as bird flu, which put humans at risk.