Primate keeper Sam Robertson with a Madagascan ring-tailed lemur (Photo: Grace Watson/Auckland Zoo)

Auckland Zoo: Here for another century

No matter how the world changes, Auckland Zoo will always have a role to play in its community. It’s a school, a mental health tool and a force against injustice; and now, it’s online.

For almost a century, Auckland Zoo has brought the natural world to its urban community. It has wildlife found nowhere else in the country, ecosystem-building conservation systems, and educational programmes for every age and stage. The Covid-19 crisis hasn’t stopped that.

On the zoo’s social media you can watch a tutorial on how to give your teddy bear a vet check-up or see a keeper play tug-of-war with a Tasmanian devil. On its website you can book a guided education session and read the latest zoo-related news.

“It’s part of the cultural and community fabric of the city,” said Dr Sarah Thomas, the zoo’s head of conservation advocacy and engagement. For Thomas, the zoo is an educational facility, a social leveller, and a way to connect with both nature and our fellow human beings. Lockdown hasn’t changed this.

“We have had to be creative, and think about new ways to achieve similar impacts using online platforms,” she said. The result is online content that includes footage from zoo habitats, “keeper cams” for a more personal view, a news page, and learning resources for students ranging from pre-school to secondary school levels.

Thomas has been on the ground setting up the cameras for animals and keepers. For some, the camera footage could actually provide a more in-depth experience than they might get visiting the zoo in person. “We probably do have some people who would like to sit with the orangutans for an hour,” she said, “but a normal day at the zoo would involve moving around.”

“People know who our orangutans are, they know them by name, and you can see them commenting and connecting, even though they can’t come in.” Charlie, Melur and Wanita have all been having a chill one.

Dr Sarah Thomas in action (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

People also enjoy the sound of the videos: the running water, birdsong and rustling plants. The footage brings a multi-sensory experience into people’s bubbles, which can generate a sense of calm in otherwise stressful times. “This is a way we can keep people feeling that they’re part of nature,” she said. 

This online content has been a long time in the making. Because of the level three and then four lockdown, the zoo was able to divert some of its resources into getting its content hub up and running. “This is content we’ve been wanting to develop and deliver for a while to sit alongside the Zoo experience,” said zoo director Kevin Buley.

The aim of the hub is to help people feel connected to the zoo, and nature more broadly, when they’re unable to visit. “That opportunity to reach out and find connections in a way that until recently we weren’t able to do has really resonated with a large portion of our community,” said Buley.

He feels the online offerings are an extension of what the zoo has always done. “We’ve always been there, as part of the Auckland community, offering this opportunity for connection with wildlife, with nature, and to immerse yourself and escape from the urban melee.”

Buley is unsure when exactly the zoo will resume business as usual, because it needs the coast to be completely clear. “The absolute priority is keeping people safe, and keeping our animals healthy. All that happens around the various levels is with keeping those two things in mind,” he said. Even before levels three and four in March, the zoo had introduced mitigation methods to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These measures will remain in place as the zoo heads back down the levels.

The current pandemic is one Buley isn’t totally shocked by. Auckland Zoo, like many wildlife organisations around the world, has been trying to shut down the wildlife trade alleged to be behind Covid-19 for years.

The illegal trade of wildlife is worth billions annually, and is ranked alongside arms dealing and drug trafficking, and human trafficking as one of the most lucrative illicit industries.

“The international wildlife trade has been a massive concern for anyone who cares about wildlife and wild places for decades,” said Buley. “Our consumptive demand for wildlife has driven many species to the point of extinction. You name it, it’s traded. Whether it’s amphibians, reptiles, birds, or mammals. From a conservation point of view it is an unmitigated disaster.”

Auckland Zoo has recently put its name to the #EndTheTrade petition, an attempt to draw international attention to the health, economic, ecological and moral drawbacks of trading illegal wildlife.

“It’s unfortunate that the rest of the world only really sits up and takes notice on a much larger scale because it’s impacted human health, and because it’s decimated our global economy,” said Buley.

Director of Auckland Zoo Kevin Buley

Around three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases come from animals, and wildlife markets are a breeding ground for them. “It’s a surprise something on this scale hasn’t happened previously. And it’s sobering to think that unless we sort our shit out, unless we stop treating wildlife this way, it’ll probably happen again, and it’ll probably happen again quite quickly.”

There’s been a yearning over the past month for a return to normality, but in the broader scheme of things – economics, health, the environment – it’s clear that business as usual is how we got here.

“We have an opportunity to redefine how we interact with each other, how we manage the global economy, how we interact with wildlife”, said Buley. “I have to remain optimistic that things won’t go back to the way they were, because I don’t think we were on the right track there.”

Auckland Zoo, with its century-long focus on education and appreciation of our natural world, has a role to play in this future. For Thomas, the evidence is clear: now is the time to address the changes we’ve wrought on the climate and the ecosystems we live in. “We feel it is a huge impact of a zoo visit to support and enable our communities to take small steps together to make a collectively big impact for our futures,” she said.

“Being connected to the zoo through these kinds of cameras creates prosocial behaviours within families, who have conversations about what they can see,” said Thomas. “They build empathy for wildlife and they can continue to connect and value nature despite not being able to access nature in the same way as pre-lockdown.”

Buley, too, believes that Auckland Zoo’s continuing mission – within lockdown and without – is one that fosters the better side of man. “You find an inherent good in people, and an inherent positivity in people,” he said.

“That’s coming through louder and clearer. If we can hold onto that as we move back down the alert levels, then the world’s going to be a better place.”



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