A walk on the wild side

DAILY GRIND Auck­land zookeeper Emma Wells has worked with all crea­tures great and small. She talks to Jenny Ling about her pas­sion for con­ser­va­tion and the car­ni­vores, pri­mates, pen­guins, meerkats and mon­goose that have shaped her ca­reer.

Central Leader - - NEWS -

You could say Emma Wells was des­tined to be­come a zookeeper.

Dur­ing one of her reg­u­lar vis­its to Auck­land Zoo as a tod­dler with her aunt she un­wit­tingly dropped her ‘‘blankie’’ into the po­lar bear en­clo­sure.

Lit­tle Emma never got her blankie back. But the mo­ment was in­grained in her mem­ory, per­haps spark­ing the ca­reer that took her around the world be­fore her re­turn to Auck­land Zoo five years ago.

‘‘It was one of my favourite places to go,’’ she says. ‘‘I al­ways knew as a kid I wanted to be a zookeeper.’’

Ms Wells fol­lowed her call­ing, un­der­tak­ing a four-year zo­ol­ogy de­gree at Auck­land Univer­sity in the mid-1990s.

Af­ter she grad­u­ated, the New Lynn res­i­dent packed her bags and went trav­el­ling.

She landed


a wildlife park in County Cork in Ire­land and be­gan work­ing the ticket counter, pick­ing up rubbish and driv­ing the tourist train.

But a se­ri­ous out­break of foot and mouth dis­ease in 2001 meant the park was closed and she lost her job.

Ms Wells found work at a small zoo near Brighton, Eng­land, which was able to stay open through strin­gent health and safety pro­ce­dures.

There she worked as a small car­ni­vore keeper. Her charges in­cluded otters, meerkats, mon­gooses and por­cu­pines.

But the Emer­ald Isle called her back and she spent an­other two years in Ire­land as a war­den for a va­ri­ety of an­i­mals in­clud­ing gi­raffes, chee­tahs, pri­mates, pen­guins, ea­gles and seals.

‘‘It gave me a re­ally good var­ied ground­ing to work with all species.’

‘‘It had one of the largest gi­raffe herds in Europe at the time – we were hav­ing calves born on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.’’

A ca­reer high­light was a trip to Africa where she vol­un­teered at a wildlife res­cue re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre for three months.

She hand-reared dozens of baby vervet mon­keys which were later re­leased back into the wild.

‘‘A lot of them would come in and they had been or­phaned.

‘‘Their mums would have been shot or poi­soned or run over so all these ba­bies were com­ing in. At one point I was look­ing af­ter eight . . . get­ting up to bot­tle­feed them sev­eral times a night. It was very in­ten­sive. By the time I left I’d hand-reared 28. I loved it, it was such re­ward­ing work.’’

An­other job on the is­land of Jersey, off the north­ern coast of France, proved equally in­spir­ing.

There she worked at the Dur­rell Wildlife Park, owned by the Eng- lish naturalist and zookeeper Ger­ald Dur­rell, which fo­cuses on con­ser­va­tion work.

Ms Wells spent three years work­ing with en­dan­gered su­ma­tran orang­utans, bats, go­ril­las and a range of threat­ened birds.

‘‘It was amaz­ing. I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have left had I not been want­ing to come back to my fam­ily,’’ she says.

Ms Wells re­turned to New Zealand in 2008 and has been work­ing at Auck­land Zoo in the pri­mate sec­tion, then as a car­ni­vore keeper.

She now looks af­ter sev­eral aviaries filled with na­tive birds like kea, blue duck, kiwi, tui and bell­birds.

Though she works reg­u­lar hours, ‘‘ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent’’.

‘‘Gen­er­ally things don’t stay the same. You’re check­ing the health and well­be­ing of the an­i­mals, feed­ing and clean­ing them and pro­vid­ing en­rich­ment ... some­thing to stim­u­late them through the day.

‘‘We want to add things or re­move things to make life a bit more dif­fer­ent for them.’’

Help­ing hand: Auck­land zookeeper Emma Wells with an arm­ful of or­phaned vervet mon­keys she hand-reared in Africa.

Snack time: Emma Wells feeds a na­tive New Zealand kaka at Auck­land Zoo.

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