The Auckland Zoo's orangutangs Charlie and Melur (Photo: supplied)

Auckland Zoo’s orangutans have an amazing new home, and they’ve never been happier

Care is at the centre of Auckland Zoo’s mandate, and it’s clear to see when you witness the staff doing their day-to-day jobs up close. Leonie Hayden went behind the scenes to talk to two people who would do anything for the animals they look after.   

“We were having this big discussion at morning tea about spooning Wanita,” primates team leader Amy Robbins told me on a warm winter morning at Auckland Zoo. The gates hadn’t yet opened, and the usually lively zoo was just coming to life.

“You’d have to be the big spoon for Wanita but for Charlie, you’d definitely be the little spoon. He’s always warm and a little bit sweaty in his chest under here, it just would be nice to curl up into.”

Robbins wasn’t talking about her workmates, but rather her charges – Bornean orangutans Wanita (41), Melur (32) and Charlie (39). When describing the personalities of the three great apes, Robbins wasn’t the slightest bit discreet about playing favourites. “We all love Wanita the most, she’s just delightful,” she laughed. “And she needs a little bit of extra care compared to the other two. Melur is interested in everyone from the minute they walk in because she loves people. Wanita, you have to work really hard before she trusts you, which I like. I like the challenge. You’ve actually got to think about what you’re doing and put effort into it, just like a normal friendship.”

Robbins has worked with Auckland Zoo’s orangutans for more than 20 years, and is also the founder of the Sumatran Ranger Project – a team of rangers who engage with forest edge communities in Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park to mitigate “human-wildlife conflict”. The group deactivate snares and traps, as well as helping communities become less reliant on activities like poaching.

Her passion has always been great apes, and these three have just helped the zoo reach a milestone in their 10-year Future Zoo development. The orangutan and siamang habitat is the first part of the South East Asia jungle track to be completed, along with the new café and venue, Te Puna. Covering a fifth of the zoo, it will eventually include a lake and wetlands, a lowlands habitat for the tigers and otters, and a swamp forest habitat within a climate-controlled dome for the Sunda gharial crocodile and other fish and reptiles.

As we chatted on the public viewing platform next to their new home, all three orangutans came up to the glass to greet Robbins. Even though she has worked with them for many years, she still punctuated our conversation with coos of delight, as if she were one of the dozens of visitors starting to trickle in. “Oh god, that’s cute” she exclaimed as Melur and Wanita settled into a grooming session, Wanita’s gentle eyes creasing in relaxation. With no treat forthcoming, Charlie climbed off to find a solitary spot where he covered himself with an oversized frond as if to say “I won’t be taking visitors at this time”.

Primates team leader Amy Robbins, with Wanita and Melur (front) and Charlie (hiding under the leaf). (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

The orangutan habitat has been designed to ensure they live arboreally, or off the ground, the vast majority of the time, as they would in the wild. They live, eat and sleep in a high canopy of trees, climbing posts, ropes and nests. “I’ve never seen them this content,” Robbins confessed. “And that’s not just because of this new habitat, but because of the team we have, and the consistency we have with them, and the love and respect the care team has for them.”

I asked Robbins how you can tell if an orangutan is happy. She told me orangutan behaviour is complex, and takes years of relationship building to read. But she said essentially their signs of happiness are good health, and interacting with each other or being content alone, and not requiring constant stimulation from staff.

“They’re considered semi-solitary. It’s because of the nature of the food they eat that they’re not a highly social animal. They live in an environment where the food they rely on isn’t reliable every year, so they’re designed to sit there and stuff their faces when its fruiting season, and store calories. When it’s non-fruiting season they eat a lot of bark and leaves, and live off the calories they’ve stored.”

A huge part of their care is around building trust. Full trust in their keepers means a number of tasks can be carried out safely and, most importantly, with the least amount of distress for the animals.

“If we ever do need to do anything that might be a bit unusual or a bit worrying for them, they’ve got that trust in us that everything’s going to be OK, that we’re not there to trick them or to trap them in any way.”

This includes letting them make decisions for themselves, such as deciding which doors are closed or left open when they retire to the night room. “We always point and ask, ‘can we shut this?’ and if they indicate no then we respect that. And that’s fine, there’s no consequences for that. Whereas in the old days of zoo keeping, its like ‘you’ll come and do this right now’. There’s no trust in that, no mutual respect.”

“Wanita is everyone’s favourite.” Robbins says the orangutans are the most content she’s ever seen them. (Image: supplied)

Robbins is Charlie’s trainer, and has known him for over 20 years. For a number of months she’s worked with him, using plenty of his favourite treats as positive reinforcement, so he’ll now happily allow her to insert his arm into a narrow tube and to give an injection or draw blood. This means they don’t have to anaesthetise as often to carry out simple medical procedures (they are, she reminded me, still dangerous animals). “He doesn’t even notice half the time. They don’t flinch, they don’t try to run away because it’s their choice if they want to come up to us, and we make our intentions clear.”

It’s not just the permanent residents that receive care at Auckland Zoo. Later that day, I had the chance to talk to another passionately dedicated staffer about the animals he meets from all over the country

James Chatterton, Auckland Zoo’s head of veterinary services, welcomed me into his busy office for a chat, while other zoo vets popped in to consult every few minutes. Originally hailing from Sheffield in the north of England, he’s been at the zoo since 2013.

He explained that Auckland Zoo’s vet department work with external stakeholders such as Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium, the Department of Conservation, Auckland Regional Parks, and bird rescues on Tiritiri Matangi, Great Barrier and Waiheke to care for sick and injured wildlife.

Chatterton told me that just as important as the animals in his care – like the sea turtles they treat every year that have eaten plastic – is teaching the public to value their welfare too. “Most of the problems these animals face in the wild are to do with things created by people. But the great thing is the solutions to helping them can be solved by people as well. It’s within everyone’s power to make a little change.”

Head of veterinary services Dr James Chatterton with a grateful kākāpō patient. (Image: supplied)

Chatterton told me he “loves all parts” of his job, but the work the zoo has done with critically endangered species, such as kākāpō, is a real source of pride.

There are currently 209 kākāpō in New Zealand (and being endemic, that’s 209 in the entire world), which has increased in the last 18 months by a third thanks to a whopping 2019 breeding season. This is testament to the decades of dedication provided by the Department of Conservation’s Kākāpō Recovery, to which Auckland Zoo have provided veterinary care for more than 15 years.

Kākāpō breed when the rimu tree fruits, which is only every two to six years. In 2019 there was a record-high fruiting, meaning there was an opportunity, under DOC’s supervision, for many of the females to produce two nests in one season, thereby almost doubling the number of chicks that hatched.

Auckland Zoo also led the veterinary response to the 2019 outbreak of aspergillosis, a fungal pneumonia that affected 21 kākāpō in total, killing two adults and seven chicks in the first few weeks. The disease is hard to diagnose and treat, with almost 50 birds having to be medically assessed during the outbreak. Auckland Zoo looked after 27 of them; the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital and Massey University’s Wildbase in Palmerston North helped care for the rest. Ultimately 12 birds survived, which required many months of intensive treatment, with two birds remaining in hospital at Auckland Zoo for nine months. The survivors are now all back home on Whenua Hou.

“We had to ask for help from the zoo community around the world. We had colleagues come from other zoos within New Zealand, as well as from Australia, North America and Europe – it was a real international effort.

“It’s really rare for a zoo vet to know that if I save this one bird, it’s going to make a difference, not only to the bird, but to the population, and that’s amazing.”

At the time of visiting, Auckland Zoo had one kākāpō patient, an older female by the name of Bella Rose. She didn’t have aspergillosis, rather a slightly more undignified ailment known as “crusty bum”, or exudative cloacitis, Chatterton explained. “The cloaca is the bird’s bottom, but through which they urinate, defecate and reproduce. It’s an emerging disease where they get ulcers and scabs around the cloaca and it’s really debilitating – it makes them sit still and they don’t want to eat. They lose weight and get really, really sick and it’s incredibly painful … and despite more than a decade of investigation, we still don’t know the cause. But the good news is that we do at least know how to make them better in the hospital.”

Bella Rose bravely receiving her treatment from the Auckland Zoo veterinary team. (Image: Leonie Hayden)

To give me a better idea of what that level of care looks like up close, I was taken to visit Bella Rose in the hospital – or rather, a large holding pen filled with her favourite plants, berries and fruit, known as “browse”. Chatterton pointed out that finding the right browse for the right species is a highly specialised role; Auckland Zoo has two horticultural experts who forage native plants, tree boughs and grasses for them.

After scrubbing, sterilising and donning protective gloves, shoes and overalls, I followed two of Chatterton’s team into Bella Rose’s quarters to observe her treatment. By the sounds she was making – a deep, pulsing grumble, like a grumpy warthog – she wasn’t very happy to see us. A large deposit made on the lap of the attending vet made her feelings especially clear. But she offered no resistance as she was very gently taken from her pen, to receive her antibiotics, pain relief and cleaning. At three kilograms, she was so much larger than I expected. I could see why her gorgeous soft plumage, in every shade of green, was so desired by Māori for cloaks and adornments. Her sweet, round face was a prescient reminder of the need to protect these unique and critically endangered taonga.

Primates team leader Amy Robbins watches as her charges take their first steps onto the aerial pathway for the public. (Photo: supplied)

Six months later I returned to see Charlie, Melur and Wanita make their first public appearance on the new aerial pathway – an innovative network of thick ropes, 25 metres off the ground, that create a loop from the primate habitats, out over the zoo’s lake to just metres from the café deck, and back again. Nine metal “trunks” connect the three-tiered-cables, which emulates the networks of vines these great apes would use in the wild.

As soon as they were allowed, Charlie and Melur were up the first tower and happily swinging overhead. Signs warned not to stand directly underneath them, for reasons soon made clear by an aerial “code brown” from Charlie. Wanita didn’t make an appearance because, Robbins told me, she likes to sleep in. “She takes a bit of time to get going in the mornings.”

The siamang will soon join them in swinging overhead. Until then the orangutans have their new aerial playground all to themselves.

It’s a huge step in the revitalisation of the zoo experience, and shows our own humble Auckland Zoo is a world leader in immersive landscapes, and prioritises the care of the animals equally with inspiring people to care for wildlife. After all, their animal care charter states: “Auckland Zoo is committed to ensuring that at all times and in all instances, the needs and welfare of our animals are our primary consideration.”

Their staff are living out those commitments every day and it’s a joy to witness.

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