Alyssa - Zoo Keeper / Kaitiaki Rawhi Whakaaturanga

My parents always took us tramping during school holidays, so I grew up with an appreciation for wild life and New Zealand fauna. I learnt to see things from an animals’ perspective because I was spending so much time in their natural environment. If I wasn’t on a tramp, I’d be out in the garden looking for bugs and lizards. We always had pets and my favourite was a cat called Squitten. I don’t remember why we named him Squitten, but he seemed to really like me. Every night he would jump on my bed and curl up beside my head before falling asleep. He always sat on my knee and followed me around outside. He was my cat.

I always knew I had a good upbringing, but it wasn’t ’til I got older that I realised how lucky I’d been. We’d always do things together as a family, going on holidays and walks. I thought that was the norm, you know? Without a doubt, as soon as you arrived home from school mum would have baked something for us. She always had something on the table for you to eat. I’ve got a brother whose much younger than me and still lives at home. I still see them at least once every couple of weeks. Either we catch up in town or I go out to visit them.

I was lucky in that my parents never pushed me into anything. I certainly went to school with people whose parents structured their whole lives for them. I guess because they wanted they thought was best for their kids. While that can be good - as it can give young people a lot of focus and direction - it might not necessarily mean you end up doing the things you actually love.

When I was at high school I spent a lot of time trying to find out what I was passionate about. I stuck with geography, english and workshop technology the whole way through. By year 13, I was the only girl left in the workshop. I never thought it was ‘weird’. I just thought, well, I like it. I’m gonna do it! It is hard when you’re that age. There’s a lot of pressure by the time you finish high school to know exactly what and who you want to be. By the time I hit year 12, I’d figured out I wanted to do something with animals. I just wasn’t quite sure what.

After I finished school I did some part time office admin. I wasn’t doing what I loved, but you have to start somewhere. One day mum saw an ad in the paper for Orana Wildlife Park. They were looking for volunteers. I distinctly remember the ad stating, ‘No contact time with animals’, but I didn’t care. It would get me one step closer than the office chair I was sitting in.

After a few months, I started training to be a walk-about guide. It was a challenge for me. Public speaking is not my forte. I obviously enjoyed the animal side of it, but talking and doing presentations really pushed me out of my comfort zone. There were a few staff members who spotted me. Especially a few of the older volunteers. I guess they saw me as an enthusiastic, young person and they wanted to help me succeed. They kept pushing me and encouraging me.

I needed that support to boost my confidence, for someone to tell me to go for it. It was a combination of their support, being there at the right time and hard work that got me my first zoo keeping job. I’d always be there, from early ’til late, getting my hands dirty. I was also enrolled in a correspondence course run by Unitec up in Auckland. I was working full time and studying full time. It was exhausting!

The public perception of zoo keeping is usually over glamourised. People think we do a lot of playing with animals, which is a little bit true, but there’s also a lot else to be done. I've found my job to be incredibly rewarding, but it's also physically and mentally demanding. There are a lot of safety requirements and stringent containment protocols to be met, let alone the work we have to do to maintain the grounds. It’s definitely not a 9-5 job. Sometimes you might have to stay with the animals longer, depending on their situation. I like living on site but I also tend to have a workaholic personality. It makes it a lot easier to keep working when you only live a few minutes walk down the path.

One aspect of the job I really enjoy is helping design the exhibits as this enables me to have a positive impact on the future direction of our zoo. I put together our kea exhibit and it has become one of my favourite places at work. It has a walk through aviary which allows anyone to come in, beyond the fence, and interact with the birds. We get the odd person who gets scared by this big parrot running around, but most people love it. I enjoy showing off our amazing native birds.

I’ve now worked here for 11 years and my official title is ‘Head Keeper of New Zealand Fauna and Domestic Animals’. It’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? I have a strange life because I literally live at work. There needs to be least one person at the zoo at all times. We’ve got two houses, one at each end of the park. There are dangerous animals, so we have to make sure we meet the strict safety requirements. In a way, it’s a 24 hour job. For example, we might have baby kiwis that need incubation during the night. If the power goes out, it’s up to me to make sure the generators turn on.

I don’t mind walking around the zoo at night. I was talking about it to one of my colleagues the other day. It was getting dark and she kept jumping whenever the kiwi made a noise. She said she loves working here during the day, but not in the dark. I’m used to the different animal noises now - I know what most of them are. The lions are really loud but I know what times they make noises. The spider monkeys are the loudest and sometimes they wake me up doing their warning calls in the middle of the night.

I work with all the New Zealand birds and animals. I especially love working with kea. To someone passing through they might all look the same, but I know each and every bird. They hold themselves differently. They all have their own different little personality and they have a complete lack of fear of humans.

Kea have a bad reputation, but they are actually one of the most intelligent birds in the world. However, the most common thing you’ll hear about them is that they’ll destroy your car. I remind people that they were actually here first, that humans encroached on their territory. Kea want to investigate and they’re not frightened of new things, unlike other birds that might shy away. They see something new and you can almost hear them thinking, “What’s that?! I’m gonna go look! I want to play with it! Let’s pull it apart!” When a car pulls up, all they see is a big shiny object that looks fun to play with. Usually kea spend their whole day foraging for food. If you feed the birds, you’re essentially giving them more energy to pull your car apart. I remind people that they were actually here first, that humans encroached on their territory. Not many people know this, but kea are classified as nationally endangered. There’s research to suggest their numbers are less than 5,000. I think we all need to take responsibility to ensure those numbers don’t get any lower.

Last year we had a kiwi egg and I discovered the chick wasn’t positioned correctly within it. It was completely upside down so there’s no way he would’ve been able to breathe, let alone get himself out of the egg. I had to x-ray and then break in to surgically move it back into place. It was scary. There were a lot of veins in there and it could have easily gone wrong. He ended up hatching successfully. I got a lot of satisfaction out of that. It showed me how far I’d come in my training and in my job. I was also able to guide other keepers along in the process because they weren’t yet trained to be able to see what I saw.

Orana Wildlife Park is a bit out of town, so there’s a lot of organisation and effort to get yourself into the city. I’m not as social as I could be, but I’m trying to make the effort to go out during the weekends. I love taking my dog out to my parent’s place so he can run around with their dog. It also means I get to have a good catch up with the family. Dad and I have a lot in common. We’re both really into gadgets and cameras. We’ll always be talking about the latest lenses and photography equipment. He sent me a photo the other day of a weta. Straight away I text him back, “Are you gonna use your macro lens on that?!” We often go out on little trips together to practise our photography. We also play a bit of Playstation and Xbox. It’s a good way to unwind if you’ve had a hard week at work.

As much as I love work, it can be stressful. I’m always on call, even if I’m not there. My workmates all know they can text or call me, even if it’s just to discuss something small. If anything goes terribly wrong, I’ll drop everything and go in. So while I try to have weekends off, I’m never really ‘off’. After a while, it takes its toll. I’m personally very invested in this job. I care a lot about each individual animal. It’s hard when you lose one, especially unexpectedly. You have to be prepared for that and to a certain degree you become a little bit hardened. In saying that, if you didn’t flinch when an animal dies, this job isn’t for you.

Sure, it’s definitely not a normal life but I’ve learnt to focus on the positive. Why am I actually doing this job? Remind myself why I got into it in the first place. Sometimes when I’m outside in the middle of winter, breaking through thick layers of ice, I think of other people tucked up in their warm offices and I wonder what the hell I’m doing. Realistically, I would rather be at the zoo, even if it is freezing.

Advice from Orana Wildlife Park

So, you want to be a zoo keeper?

Almost all work experience requests we receive relate to working with the animals. Animal keeping is a very rewarding career but it is a very demanding position. Keepers work in all weather and there are limited jobs available in New Zealand.

If you are studying at school, we recommend you take a broad subject base such as Science (biology/chemistry), English and Maths. At Orana, our animal keepers give regular public presentations often to large crowds of people so keepers need to have great animal husbandry skills but also enjoy working with people.

Orana Wildlife Park welcomes all applications for work experience and we are committed to training future Animal Keepers. However, the Park is committed to mainly providing work experience for students studying towards the Certificate in Animal Management (Captive Wild Animals) through Unitec. A very limited number of placements may be available to other students.

Certificate in Animal Management (Captive Wild Animals)

This course is a specific qualification that will train you to become a zoo keeper. It is recognised by the main zoos within New Zealand as the entry-level qualification to work as an animal keeper. Students must gain 280 hours of work experience at an approved zoo, such as Orana Wildlife Park. The Animal Team is in charge of considering applications for work experience.

The Park is able to accept just four students per year who work over the weekend roster for ten months. Each student works one day per week (on their allocated day which will be a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday). The Animal Keepers commit considerable time and energy into training students. Therefore, we are looking for applicants who are dedicated and motivated to complete the Unitec course. The course requirement of 280 hours work experience commences after the first block course in February and will finish on completion of the practical exam, not later than December. Students will be trained to work with Carnivores, Ungulates, Primates, Avian and Reptiles. All applicants are required to have a current driver’s licence and their own transport to the Park. It is also necessary for all students to receive vaccinations for Hepatitis A/B and Tetanus before commencing their work placement. Further details of vaccination requirements will be provided to successful applicants.

How do I get into this career?

There are no specific requirements for becoming a zoo keeper as skills are learned on the job. However, employers usually prefer people who have some former training:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about being zoo keeper. Their 'How to enter the job' section has a lot of really good info.

- You might like to follow up by emailing or visiting tertiary providers and asking them more about their courses.

- Another idea is to research local zoos, call them, and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some greatonline resources on how to approach this.