Real Life

Zookeeper Sarah’s wild times ‘A normal job would be tame’

Pouncing on the chance to care for animals, she’s a happy creature of habit 35 years on

One hundred years ago, Auckland Zoo opened its doors to the public, giving locals the chance to see wild animals up close and personal in the city for the first time.

Zookeeper Sarah Anderson, 54, hasn’t been there since day one, but she has dedicated the last 35 years of her life to caring for the zoo’s many different species. The self-confessed “bird nerd”, who now works full-time in the avian habitats with her beloved kea and flamingos, to name a few, first started at the zoo as an eager 18-year-old.

Mind your fingers! The “bird nerd” adores cheeky kea.

“I can distinctly visualise my first day,” recalls Sarah. “Peter West, the primate team leader training me, asked me to get some insects to feed the lemurs. I was picking locusts and galleria out of a container thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m not too sure about this.’ But I got over that quickly!”

Talking to the Weekly as Auckland Zoo celebrates its milestone this month, with a commemorative book and special 100th exhibition, she recounts amazing anecdotes to rival the best of work stories.

From giving the late, beloved elephant Kashin a bath to watching a giraffe give birth and kiwi chicks hatch, Sarah struggles to choose the most memorable experience.

“Another highlight was being one of the keepers responsible for looking after giant pandas Xiao Xiao and Fei Fei when they came to the zoo for three months in 1988, as part of an awareness and fundraising tour,” shares Sarah, who laughs remembering the lengths she went to in order to source food for the guests. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“Little old me would be driving this big truck out to someone’s backyard to cut down lots of bamboo. But we also had a reasonable amount of time observing them. It was an amazing experience.”

Sarah (centre) looking after giant pandas in 1988, with fellow keepers Maria Finnigan (left) and Sandra Rice.

Over the years, Sarah has left several times – for the iconic Kiwi OE, to study for a zoology degree, and to have her three sons, Seamus, 21, Jack, 20, and Tommy, 18.

“I describe myself as a boomerang because I just keep coming back,” says Sarah.

“It’s been challenging being a solo working mum, and I do remember days trying to get out the door and everything turning to custard. But the kids are very independent now, so that’s less stressful.”

And Sarah’s adamant it’s all been worth it to pursue the career she dreamed about even as a child visiting the zoo.

With sons (from left) Tommy, Jack and Seamus.

Explaining a standard day at work, the Aucklander says there are the exciting parts like training animals for encounters with the public – “these animals are advocates for their wild counterparts” – or raising and releasing native birds to bolster the populations of species, like whio and pāteke ducks. “It’s really rewarding, and a huge highlight because you know we’re helping these endangered animals and giving back.”

But there’s also a huge amount of admin and animal husbandry, with many hours dedicated to preparing food and cleaning the habitats.

“Zookeeping is a physically demanding job – and yes, we do a lot of cleaning and dishes,” she laughs. “But it’s highly rewarding and fascinating work, and over the years, it’s become a very specialist role that involves a lot of science, ongoing training and research.”

No two days are the same and Sarah looks forward to each time she enters the aviaries. “The kea are a big favourite of mine. They’re very unique, intelligent birds, who have different personalities,

just like humans. You do definitely form a connection with the animals.”

Tickled pink by the pretty flamingos.

Since starting at Auckland Zoo in 1987, Sarah says a huge amount has changed and while quality care has always been at the forefront, conservation efforts – both at the zoo and out in the wild with other partners – is also a priority for the organisation.

“When the Rena disaster occurred, we went down and helped with washing off oil-affected little penguins and dotterels,” Sarah says of the 2011 oil spill when container ship Rena crashed off the

coast of Tauranga. “It was amazing being able to use the skills we have for something really important.

“I’ve always been really proud to be a keeper at Auckland Zoo because we’re always striving to do better.”

The commemorative book, Auckland Zoo: 100 Years, 100 Stories, is available at retailers nationwide, $55. The 100th exhibition is now open at Auckland Zoo.

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