Reporter Emma Whittaker and photographer Jason Oxenham got out of their comfort zones and as close as possible to some of Auckland Zoo’s most fascinating animals with the Keeper For a Day experience.
OUR first job of the day is tame enough.
At 9am the public hasn’t yet arrived at the Auckland Zoo so we’re completely undisturbed as we move around the Te Wao Nui aviary refilling bird feeders.
It’s a day out of the office and the only sounds we can hear are the trickle of the aviary’s stream and a few bird calls, so when keeper Courtney Eparvier tells us the next step is to scrub poo off of the railings and pathways we’re quite happy to roll up our sleeves and get to it.
Ms Eparvier is the lead senior primate keeper and is co-ordinating the zoo’s new Keeper For a Day Programme.
She started her career at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans but has been with the Auckland Zoo for six years.
‘‘As keepers we feel incredibly privileged and inspired to be working with some of the world’s most endangered wildlife, and are passionate about ensuring their conservation,’’ she says.
‘‘It’s good to show people we don’t just cuddle animals all day, we do a lot of different work.’’
The aviary has only a few residents at the moment so it doesn’t take long for us to finish our task.
Our first close encounter is with ringtail lemurs.
The zoo has six Madagascar natives.
They aren’t shy at all and are keen to come and inspect us.
Even though they are one of the smallest and least intimidating animals we’ll see today, being in such close proximity to the cat-like
of the creatures is a little frightening at first.
Ms Eparvier helps and I quickly get the confidence to kneel down and feed the lemurs that are now waiting patiently and still for their slices of peach.
The zoo has a strong focus on animal enrichment.
It is a way of getting animals to behave as they would in the wild and some of the techniques include changing around exhibits, presenting food in different ways, and giving animals novel items to play with.
We hang black plastic balls full of food from trees that the lemurs will have to poke and prod at if they want a snack later.
One of the most memorable experiences is getting the chance to observe 29-year-old Asian elephant Burma during her playtime in the zoo’s surrounding bush.
The walk from the enclosure has to be carefully orchestrated so we don’t encounter any other animals also out walking that might frighten her.
Burma has been the zoo’s only elephant for almost four years since Kashin died in 2009.
Elephants are social animals and usually live in herds, and the zoo has been looking at options for providing Burma with companions since Kashin’s death, keeper Andrew Coers says.
One of these options is to move her to another zoo.
‘‘Burma does need to be with other elephants. Some decisions will need to be made in the next 12 months about what happens,’’ Mr Coers says.
But introducing new friends is a complex undertaking, he says.
‘‘Bringing in an already established herd could put Burma on the outside,’’ he says.
The elephant is surprisingly silent as she stomps off into the trees to pull at branches and douse herself with dirt.
‘‘She loves it up here, it’s her time out from it all,’’ Mr Coers says.
We end the day with a tiger visit.
For safety reasons we can’t go inside the enclosure with them, but they are only one metre away from us in their cages.
Being face to face with one of the most feared predators on the planet, hearing them hiss and seeing the detailed patterns in their coats is something I won’t forget quickly.
On the job: Reporter Emma Whittaker and photographer Jason Oxenham get to know the zoo animals on the other side of the bars as they dish out feed and help with the enrichment programme.
Go to centralleader.co.nz and click on Latest Edition to see more photos from the zoo experience.