By Jodi Bryant

As a child, Jess Ayres would bring home 'stray' dogs, collect stick insects and rescue kittens from under buildings. These days, the Whangarei mother and hairdresser has moved onto saving larger animals – wild ones in distant countries.

"I've always had a passion for animals," says the Kamo-based 33-year-old. "But, being a very social, outgoing person, I decided to work my way up through the hairdressing industry."

She opened her own salon Foxy Locks Hair Boutique two years ago but, last year, the keen traveler decided to travel to Thailand with partner Brendyn and children Levi, 5 and Ayla, 3, which reignited her passions for both travelling and animals.

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"We decided to take the kids along because I believe exposing the children to culture, lifestyles, different environments and different wildlife will only benefit them to become more accepting and grounded in their upbringing.

"On my previous travels I would find time to visit sanctuaries, zoos, encounter parks and, in Thailand, I stumbled across an 'elephant sanctuary', where the desire to ride elephants from visitors, pushed the industry. It was this moment I decided I would do a little research into the plight of the Asian Elephant and the effects of riding.

The family visited a sanctuary which rescued elephants from riding and logging companies and private ownership and focused on positive animal welfare, allowing the animals to live out the rest of their life with their own choice of being involved with visitors and workers.

"On our way to the elephant sanctuary we passed about five different elephant riding venues on our three-hour ride into the jungle. It was heart-breaking. Once at the sanctuary, I realised I was very limited to the expertise that was needed to help these elephants. This was when I realised my real passion was with large, wild animals and I decided, on my return to New Zealand, to follow this passion of animal welfare," says Jess.

She enrolled in a one-year Animal Management – Captive Wild Animals full-time Unitec course via correspondence, which involves zoo work experience. This entails juggling the business – she still works in the salon Tuesday-Saturday, with travelling to Auckland Mondays for work experience, school and day care.

"My family are very supportive of this new journey. It has involved a lot of juggling and I have had to employ a nanny to care for my kids every Monday morning as my partner begins work at 5.30am. I leave Monday morning to go down there and return Monday night. My study is fitted in between my work in the salon and Sundays. It's very busy!"

Her work experience involves following a keeper and includes helping with the bathing, feeding, grooming and general care of the animals in that section, along with learning about captive breeding and healthcare.

Jess says she has found the journey to be very challenging with the course content extremely hard. However, the practical side of the work placement is amazing.

"It is challenging to learn all the details of animals in the zoo facility. The bio background, taxonomy and husbandry skills and knowledge needed for every single animal is very full-on and takes a lot of studying and research. But the great outweigh the hard.

"I have had several amazing moments already; bathing an elephant, feeding meerkats, holding a goliath stick insect and giving a Galapagos tortoise a neck scratch. After completing my section in carnivores, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with the Sumatran Tigers."

She says, after a lot of research into the plight of the tiger in the wild, and the 'amazing' work the Stay Wild Tiger Trust does in Sumatra, she decided to focus her energy and support towards this programme.

Stay Wild is based in Batu Katak, Sumatra, a small community on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park and a 200ha Karst forest which is being threatened by mining. In order to save this area from destruction, the trust is providing opportunities, resources and conservation education to the communities living around the forest to empower them with knowledge to lessen further disruption of the forest and its inhabitants, which includes the Sumatran Tiger. Protecting the tiger, the alpha predator, ensures the protection of the whole ecosystem.

Although she will be a qualified zoo-keeper at the end of her course, Jess says she is more drawn to helping overseas. She will aim to work several days a week at an accredited facility while juggling her hairdressing, which she still loves, and plans to do an annual overseas trip of up to two months to volunteer. She hopes to include her children and partner in the journey.

"I'm hoping a little change I can make into the future of our earth and sustainability will roll on into their mindset and generational change."

The first trip kicks off in December when she is heading to Batu Katak to volunteer. This will involve tracking and recording data on cameras in the jungle to monitor the ecosystem for the Sumatran Tiger. This data will help support their quest in protecting the forest from being mined. She will also be assisting in English classes for the local children as part of their environmental lessons.