An­i­mal mag­netism

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.

Central Leader - - NEWS -

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.

Pho­tos: JA­SON OXENHAM

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.

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