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Nick Reynolds checking the progress of incubating Galapagos tortoise eggs. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)
Nick Reynolds checking the progress of incubating Galapagos tortoise eggs. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

ScienceFebruary 26, 2024

From ‘cleaning and butchering’ to nurturing native frogs: What it’s like being a zookeeper

Nick Reynolds checking the progress of incubating Galapagos tortoise eggs. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)
Nick Reynolds checking the progress of incubating Galapagos tortoise eggs. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

After a ‘horrific’ stint looking after tigers in England, Nick Reynolds landed an ideal role at Auckland Zoo. We joined him on the job to get an inside peek.

In the early 2000s, Nick Reynolds embarked on every seven-year-old’s dream job: keeper of large carnivores – tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars – at a zoo in rural England. He was in his late teens, fresh out of an animal care course at agricultural college and bursting with new-grad enthusiasm. He packed up his bags and moved to “a little hovel on the edge of a cliff” near the zoo’s location. Soon after, he came crashing down to earth.

“It was an eye opener to the industry,” he says. “My section was 26 tigers. Twenty-six tigers. If I look at their habitats now, it’s horrific. It was too small, it was overcrowded.” The big cats he worked with were retired from circus life, “so I was working with tigers that looked a bit strange,” he continues. “Siberian tigers which had been bred with Bengal tigers which had been bred with Sumatran tigers, Indochinese tigers. Short legs, long legs, you know? The tigers were cross-eyed. It was horrible.” 

But the truly humbling aspect of the job was this: Reynolds had to kill all the tigers’ food himself. He spent much of his time euthanising horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and whatever else the keepers could get their hands on. The zoo was run “on a shoestring”, he says, so local farmers would donate old, useless animals. One day early on, Reynolds’ boss took him to a farm where a thousand chickens were being donated to the zoo. Reynolds assumed the dead chooks would be loaded into crates. “Naively, I thought, ‘We just get the crates, and we put them in the lorry, and we drive home again,’” he says. “That wasn’t the case.” 

Nick Reynolds caring for Aotearoa’s endemic Archey’s frogs at Auckland Zoo. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

He arrived to find a barn full of hundreds of live chickens, and he and his boss had to personally wring their necks, one by one. “I think we did 500-800 that day. It was hours. Hours. As an 18-year-old.” It was the first time he’d killed an animal. 

This was the nature of the job. “I was cleaning and butchering, cleaning and butchering, every single day,” Reynolds says. One day, two adorable little billy goats were dropped off as tiger food; the picture of innocence, discarded simply because they were male. It was Reynolds’ job to kill them. He quit on the spot. 

It’s a sweltering day in summer, and Reynolds and I are chatting in the Auckland Zoo’s steamy swamp forest dome, surrounded by draping orchids and tanks full of tropical fish. Somewhere in the recesses of the tanks lurk two Sunda gharial crocodiles. They’re cranky with Reynolds at the moment: contractors are buffing scratches out of the tank’s acrylic panel by panel, requiring Reynolds to constantly trick the crocodiles into moving where he needs them to go. Consequently, the trust he’s carefully built up with these “very suspicious, very shy” creatures is eroding – it’s “paper thin at the moment,” Reynolds says. 

Reynolds, who is 39, got into the zookeeping game for the reason you’d expect: he loves, loves, loves animals. “It was always a safety thing for me,” he says. “[Animals] don’t judge, they don’t hold grudges. They’re not malicious.” Following his stint with the tigers, Reynolds took a cover keeper role at another zoo, which involved moving from enclosure to enclosure depending on which section was short on staff. A wonderful role in theory, because you get to care for a range of animals rather than being stuck in one spot, Reynolds found cover keepers tended to be handed the worst jobs, like shovelling buffalo shit. But one day he was asked to cover the reptile section, and it was a road to Damascus moment. 

Part of Reynolds’ job involves field trips to perform important conservation work. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

“I stepped into their South American tropical house and I was like, ‘This is a bit of me’,” Reynolds says, beaming, eyes wide with boyish enthusiasm. “Piranhas in a big tank, dwarf crocodile, a wall full of spiders.” At this point in his early 20s, he switched to caring for ectotherms: cold-blooded creatures who rely on external sources like sunlight or warm rocks to regulate their body temperature; think crocodiles, lizards, frogs, turtles, snakes, fish and insects. He’s never looked back. 

Reynolds has done stints of pure conservation work over the course of his career: in his mid-20s, he spent three months in the Peruvian Amazon catching caiman and analysing their stomach contents, then another three months in Mauritius reintroducing a species of native skink. While this work was highly rewarding, he found aspects quite unsettling. “It’s not steady work,” he says. “It’s not well paid. It’s dirty. It’s gruelling. You sometimes put yourself in dangerous situations.” 

Reynolds realised that while he wanted an aspect of conservation in his career, living in a hut in the wilderness with no electricity wasn’t his cup of tea. As much as he wanted to help save endangered species, he valued things like routine, stability and hot water. Was there any way to reconcile the two desires? 

After stints at several zoos in the UK during his late 20s and early 30s, the answer came in the form of a job ad from Auckland Zoo in 2019 – and it was a resounding “yes”. As a senior ectotherm keeper, Reynolds has the best of both worlds: up to a quarter of his working time is spent out in the wild doing conservation work; at the moment that’s regular trips to the Coromandel to look for geckos. The rest of the time he’s at the zoo, enjoying the regular hours, familiar faces and hot showers. 

According to Reynolds, this dual keeper/conservationist model makes Auckland Zoo a world leader. “There are very few zoos that actively do both,” he says. “This is where we need to be.”

In many ways, Reynolds’ career is a microcosm of the evolution of the zoo as an institution. Beginning as sites of sheer entertainment with no concern whatsoever for the welfare of the animals – think cross-eyed tigers crammed into cages – zoos now see themselves as hubs for conservation and scientific research. 

And as zoos have evolved, so too has the zookeeper role, which has become professionalised and highly competitive. “Applicants have got bachelor of science degrees, Masters, PhDs,” Reynolds says. “We’ve got interns, we’ve got volunteers that volunteer their time just to get something on the CV. It’s one of the most cutthroat industries.” 

Once you’re in, you’re doing a job that, in Reynolds’ eyes at least, is one of the most rewarding on offer: fighting for wildlife on the brink of extinction and developing close relationships with animals and the people who care for them. But as his career attests, it’s not an easy ride. Reynolds’ words of advice for a young, aspiring zookeeper? “It’s not going to be given to you,” he says. “You’re going to have to really want it.”

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