Real Life

Zookeeper Christine’s amazing animal bond

It’s been a wild ride and one Christine will miss on her tamer new chapter
Christine smiling at the camera

For 44 years, rain or shine, Christine Tintinger woke up, put on her uniform and went to work as a zookeeper at Auckland Zoo, ready for whatever the day had to offer.

In that time, she’s experienced it all. From watching a baby orangutan’s birth and being a companion to tea party chimpanzee Janie, to featuring on the popular television show The Zoo and travelling to Sumatra to see primate conservation in the wild.

As she retires this year, Christine sat down with the Weekly to talk about her impressive tenure.

“I’m lucky to have worked in a place that has given me so much pleasure,” enthuses Christine, 65. “The zoo is like a little microcosm of life. There are births, deaths and marriages. Amazing, happy things and sad things, and things that come out of leftfield you never saw coming. But you deal with what’s in front of you and move on because other animals are relying on you.”

This get-it-done attitude has served Christine well from her first days on the job. As a 21-year-old, Christine worked in the ungulates (hoofed mammal) section, looking after giraffes, deer and antelopes.

Christine standing in front of the Zebra cage, with two zebras in the background
With the zebras in the ’70s.

“It’s a very physically demanding section, but I just got on and did it,” she explains. “I can visualise my younger self raking in the hot sun. I’d be thinking, ‘I’ve achieved what I wanted to and look at little old me right where I wanted to be.’”

Christine’s ambition to become a zookeeper started as a teenager. She was inspired by prominent British conservationist and TV presenter Gerald Durrell’s animal books.

Laughing, she recalls catching the bus after school, still in her uniform with her backpack, for her first-ever job interview. At the interview, Graham Meadows, the then zoo curator, kindly told her to get some more life experience first.

Two years later, after working as a Karitane nurse and completing an animal science course, she was delighted when Graham got in touch to offer her a zookeeper job in 1979.

“At that time, more and more women were becoming whatever they wanted. But still, zookeepers were usually male,” recalls Christine, who then joined the primates section in 1991. “It was quite exotic and
not a lot of people did it.”

One of the most memorable responsibilities was caring for chimpanzee Janie. She passed away aged 60 in 2013 after living 57 of those years at Auckland Zoo.

“We had a good bond and a rapport. Because she lived such a long time, she is a personality that resounded in me for many years,” shares Christine. “As well as cleaning her surroundings and feeding her, I would just sit with her.

“Given her history and her exceptional intelligence, as well as keeping her physically and mentally enriched, being in her company and giving her lots of quality time is what she most needed.

“We would put the radio on and we also got her a TV. She liked the movie Night at the Museum and would be glued to that.

Young Christine and a colleague tend to a baby hippo on the ground
Seventies flashback: caring for a hippo calf with Jan Richards.

“When Janie died, so many people grieved for her. It was extremely sad but also amazing to see all these people coming to say goodbye to this one animal that I had the privilege of knowing quite intimately.”

Another highlight was being part of 12 seasons on the popular television series The Zoo. The series followed keepers and animals behind the scenes during their day-to-day life.

“I remember when I was first recognised. I was at the supermarket after work in my uniform,” she recalls. “Someone called out, ‘Hello, Christine’ in a really friendly manner. I had no idea who they were, then I realised they had seen me from the show. It was brilliant publicity for the zoo.”

Filming also took Christine to Sumatra in 2010, where she experienced Auckland Zoo-supported conservation efforts with primates in the wild.

“We would wake up at 4am, literally traipsing through the forest to see the siamang gibbons wake up when the sun came up,” she tells. “That was many years ago, but it feels like only yesterday when I start talking about it and I am back there in the jungle with a male orangutan right in front of me.”

Smiling, Christine shares it really was a dream job, but her body slowing down convinced her it was time to retire.

Now with more time on her hands, she is considering sharing her knowledge as a lecturer.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure, Christine definitely hasn’t said goodbye to her beloved Auckland Zoo for good. 

“The environment, people and animals will morph like it has done in my 44 years, but I don’t live too far away,” she says. “It will still be there just around the corner and that’s my little something that settles me.”

Christine Tintinger and Jane Goodall
A highlight was meeting conservationist Dr Jane Goodall during her visit to Auckland Zoo in 2014.

Quick fire questions

Is there a surprising food you give the orangutans?

In winter, the orangutans enjoy warm herbal fruit teas. As adept tool users, we can give them drinks in plastic cups. In summer, we give cold drinks and iceblocks.

Who has the cheekiest personality?

Female orangutan Indra was especially smart and crafty. If I ever accidentally left something like a broom or scrubbing brush in a place I thought was out of reach, but clearly wasn’t, I’d come back to find it broken into pieces. Orangutans are eight times stronger than humans.

Share a special unforgettable memory.

Orangutan Melur as a first-time mum with her son Madju, who was born in 2006. She was just brilliant! So intuitive and clever and so patient. I wished I could have been that relaxed with my daughter Claire!

To make a donation to Auckland Zoo, visit aucklandzoo.co.nz/get-involved/donate.

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