It’s 9AM on a Wednesday and I’m trying not to get in the way of two zookeepers, a photographer, a communications advisor and a 960 kg giraffe.
I’m at Wellington Zoo to shadow their Herbivore Team Leader, Bobby Stoop, for the morning. I haven’t been here since I was a child and I’ve forgotten how much the slope of the place pulls at your thighs. I’m still slightly panting between asking Bobby questions about what he’s doing with their giraffes today.
To my left, Geoff the zookeeper is holding a bucket of pellets and lettuce above his head like some sort of pagan offering to an African goddess. To my right, Bobby is gently asking Zahara (aforementioned African goddess) to lift up her left foot.
Bobby repeats the movements and positively reinforces her behaviour with a clicker; she’s clever and catches on quickly. This is all done to soften the stress Zahara might feel when a wildlife vet comes in to rasp and correct her hooves – constantly bearing the weight of nearly 1,000kg every day means her feet need to be in perfect condition..
“Working with giraffes a lot, often I get asked, ‘Don’t you just wish that they could roam further?’ and the reality is, when giraffes are on the move, they’re just looking for more food,” Bobby says.
“If you’ve provided them with all the food, they wouldn’t go very far at all.”
I peer between Zahara’s legs into the enclosure, to see what fellow giraffes Zuri and Sunny are doing. They’re more interested in what we’re doing, rather than bargaining for an extra square metre in their enclosure.
“Likewise, with lions – if they’ve got everything they need, then they’re not going to need to go any further.”
After her training, Zahara plucks energy dense pellets from my eagerly outstretched palms. A viscous trail of saliva slides down my arm but I’m buzzing from the experience. I’ve made a far more emotional connection with the exotic breed today than I would have by reading an article about them on the internet. Ash Howell, Wellington Zoo’s Communications Advisor, tells me that’s the point.
“They’re an advocate for their species,” she says.
She tells me people are far more motivated to help an animal that they can see, smell and hear than a 2D representation of one on a screen. This makes sense, but I can’t help but think, so what if someone’s snot-nosed kid never sees a giraffe in real life? Sit them down in front of a David Attenborough documentary. But then I realise I was once that snot-nosed kid, sitting in my pram, gawking at the size of a giraffe’s head and the arc of their neck. These images burned themselves into the banks of my memory, playing unconsciously on a loop as I grew older. They led me to sponsor an otter at Auckland Zoo instead of receiving a birthday present when I was 9; they influenced my decision to produce an entire magazine issue dedicated to raising awareness about animals. So, maybe Wellington Zoo does have the right idea.
We make a move towards the Kea enclosure, which I incorrectly assume will be the most underwhelming animal on the morning’s itinerary.
If you’ve ever tried to cross Arthur’s Pass without your vehicle being completely dismantled by an endemic alpine parrot, you should be familiar with these birds. Wellington Zoo’s seven Kea flock to the middle of the aviary where keeper Kat is setting up enrichment puzzles for them. As Fern and Huka tweak flax parcels with their beaks, the team explain the little known plight behind these inquisitive birds.
“These guys are critically endangered in the wild – lots of people don’t know that,” says Ash.
Their neophiliac natures mean their fearless interactions with humans are often detrimental; rubbish left behind by humans isn’t an ideal diet for a Kea.
“So, it’s really nice for people to come here and see them for what they are, not just annoying pests that eat your car,” adds Kat.
“…and actually, see that they’re intelligent and have personalities. It’s just important to show people that they’re actually really cool animals and hopefully they’ll respect them more in the wild.”
Kat advises hunters and hikers to take responsibility for any rubbish they have. This also applies to anyone having their lunch break at Prince of Wales park, as Kaka – the forest equivalent of Kea – have been sighted here.
The clock eats into the morning and it’s now time to feed the blue penguins.
Today they’re station training because Bandit, the male missing a flipper, can get greedy around meal time. This new initiative means that each penguin gets their fair ration. They’re a motley bunch, with some missing flippers and others missing eyes.
“In the case of these penguins, they’re rescues so they could never make it in the wild,” says Bobby.
“So we’re giving them a really good quality of life, in an environment that’s been perfectly set up for these individuals.”
Nowadays, coastal roads that have been built between nesting areas and the ocean are causing a lot of grief to the tiny endemic penguins. Driving slower during dusk and dawn, and keeping dogs on leashes is a small way we can contribute to recovering the wild population.
Having successfully distracted Bandit while the female penguins ate breakfast, Bobby joins me on a park bench next to the penguin enclosure.
“Do you think people still think of zoos as cruel organisations who exploit animals?”
He takes a moment to answer my loaded question.
“My experience with animals in zoos is that if you set them up well, you can achieve a very, very high degree of welfare and very high quality of life.
“You end up with a situation these days where the wild situations aren’t necessarily great for welfare. ‘Wild’ – in many places – it’s not really there anymore.”
“It’s not this ‘Zootopia’ that everyone thinks it is – it’s just not,” interjects Ash.
“If they’re not coming into contact with other predators, they’re coming into contact with humans or both. Then there’s all the environmental things – whereas in zoos, we can tick all those boxes,” Bobby continues.
“Provided that you provide for all those other needs they have; you sometimes almost have a better scenario for the animals we’re looking after.”
My heart starts to digest in my lower intestine. How did we end up in a predicament where some animals are safer in zoos than they are in their natural habitats?
“Globally, zoos are the third largest contributor towards conservation. Zoos have also brought back animals on the verge of extinction – the golden lion tamarin is a perfect example of that,” says Ash.
This restores a sliver of hope. We may have caused the plight of many species, but we’re also starting to untangle the damage we’ve caused.
Early incarnations of zoos conjure memories of noses pressed against glass, dejected animals and cramped cages. But progressive zoos have pioneered a movement where education is prioritised over entertainment. In a time where multiple countries are declaring a climate emergency, zoos are a necessity rather than a novelty.
“Zoos, now more than ever, play a crucial role for the survival of animals,” says Ash.