Orangutans are FaceTiming, meerkats are eating their breakfast mice and macaws are performing to crowds of zero. The city might be in lockdown, but at Auckland Zoo, life must go on.
In late August, as the realities of a level four lockdown sank in and another day of home-schooling her two children loomed, Amy Robbins decided enough was enough. Auckland Zoo’s deputy curator of mammals had hit a wall and needed some contact with the outside world. For over a week she hadn’t seen her favourite friend, one she’d had regular face-to-face contact with for the past 20 years. She was missing him.
“It’s not having that regular contact that makes me a bit angsty,” she says. “I sound like a crazy obsessive person, (but) I feel like we’ve got a really good understanding of each other.” Wanting to check in, she scheduled a FaceTime chat and organised a workmate to help get her old friend on the phone. Shortly after midday, her phone buzzed, she opened the app, and there was Charlie, a 40 year-old Bornean orangutan covered in shaggy orange hair.
Charlie’s one of Auckland Zoo’s most popular primates, and Robbins has worked closely with him for the last two decades. It’s also not the first time they have FaceTimed. “If we catch him in the right frame of mind … we’ll have a little chat,” says Robbins. “He knows my face, he knows my voice.” She also admits: “It’s definitely for my benefit.”
Not seeing Charlie for a week had felt like an age, but during a level four lockdown, chatting to him over Facetime is about all Robbins can do. She’s stepped back from caring for Charlie and his female companions Wanita and Melur because of the facility’s careful Covid-19 protocols. Split into separate teams, Robbins is on the bench, ready and willing to help out if others in the zoo’s primates team get sick.
Those precautions are for the zookeepers’ health, but there’s another reason for this: orangutans can catch coronavirus too. At all times, zookeepers wear face masks and gloves. “To further keep both ourselves and the animals safe, we’ve also split our primate team into sub-teams so there is only minimal staff working with them,” says Robbins. “These are extra biosecurity protocols on top of what we already do as standard.”
Amy and Charlie’s separation is just one sign of many that lockdown life at Auckland Zoo is very different. Just because the doors are closed and thousands of daily visitors are isolated, the zoo isn’t able to send all of its hundreds of staff home too. Instead, using a skeleton crew, the zoo has had to find another way to operate. Teams are siloed, toilets are segregated, zookeeper contact is conducted via walkie talkies and messenger apps, and everyone is masked for everything.
More than 1400 animals spanning 150 species call the zoo’s Western Springs site home. At 40 acres, it’s the biggest collection of animals in New Zealand and each species has its own diet, cleaning, training and socialising demands. Life has to go on. “It’s like your kids. It’s like your family. They still need looking after,” says Robbins. “They still need feeding and enriching and stimulation and everything that goes along with their care.”
Sometimes, they need even more than that. Lizzy Perrett, team leader of animal experiences, is one of the zoo’s more recognisable public faces. You’ve probably seen her taking daily open-air training classes when the zoo’s open. Kids ooh and aah as macaws show off their natural abilities and are rewarded with fruity treats. When the zoo’s closed, Perrett still has to take those classes. She doesn’t want the birds to freak out when they open the doors back up again.
So her daily routine continues. Perrett’s at the zoo every day at 8am, preparing a breakfast of nuts and seeds for the macaws. Her favourite, Chico, greets her at the front door of his aviary, then taps on the window of the kitchen, watching on as she steams his vegetables. “I think I spend more time making their meals than I spend making my own meals,” Perrett admits. Sometimes, they’ll even listen to the radio together.
Then, she’ll put cages down, invite the birds who want to take part in a training session to climb inside, take them onto the causeway, and put on a show for absolutely no one. “We’re putting on microphones … flying birds, looking like Britney Spears with no one watching, just talking to ourselves,” says Perrett. “You might see one of the other team walk past saying, ‘Who is she talking to?’”
Those training sessions are undertaken with another big Covid precaution: the birds have to fly under a giant net for everyone’s security. “They can be dive-bombed by a gull and end up in a nearby resident’s tree,” says Perrett. It’s happened before, but it can’t be allowed to happen at level four. “We can’t knock on the neighbours’ door and ask, ‘Do you mind if we come in and call our parrot down?’”
All of this means extra work, but Perrett feels privileged to still be able to do her job. “We’re working probably harder than we normally have to, to keep this interest and momentum going,” she says. Yes, she misses her audience, but Perrett thinks Chico and the rest of the zoo’s resident birds miss the crowds too. “I’d imagine they are missing the visitors – they’ve certainly noticed they’re not there,” she says. “Hopefully we’re filling the void until they come back.”
Lauren Booth is the zoo’s team leader of carnivores, and she makes her job sound like she works in a Pixar movie. “(Otter) babies get you in trouble,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Let’s play!’ Mum’s like, ‘You’re hurting my babies!’ I’m like, ‘I’m not! I’m not!'”
Booth oversees carnivores that come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from meerkats Mudiwa and Tosha, who only eat half-a-mouse each for breakfast, to cheetahs Qia and Quartz, who chew their way through 1kg of chicken or rabbit. She doesn’t think lockdown’s had much of an impact on them. The meerkats still scamper around all day, with Mudiwa acting as sentry, watching out for predators. The cheetahs couldn’t care less. “Like most cats, they don’t notice it if you’re there or not,” says Booth. “They’re quite happy to sleep and chill.”
Although the cheetahs remain unaffected, lockdown’s definitely had an impact on Booth. Living on Waiheke Island, she feels even more isolated, often travelling into the zoo each day as the only person on the ferry. Once there, she heads straight to the otter enclosure for a quick pick-me-up. “They’re my favourite animals in the world, and they’re the best animals in the world,” says Booth. “They make my heart explode.”
At Auckland Zoo, there are seven of them, all boys: Panuta, Arif, Ika, Agus, Hendra, Ketut, Budi. “They’re fun, they’re ferocious, they’re cheeky, they’re everything you could want in an animal,” says Booth. Whenever she’s at the zoo, she makes sure she pops by to check in on them. “I could watch them all day,” she says. Others seem to agree. An hour-long livestream of the zoo’s otter enclosure posted to YouTube has nearly 13,000 views, a calming balm for lockdown.
There’s a good reason for the video’s popularity, says Dr Sarah Thomas, Auckland Zoo’s head of conservation advocacy and engagement. “They’re just brilliant. You’ve got that lovely sound of the water, you’ve got them all squeaking away,” she says. Content like the otter live stream also helps connect viewers to nature, and calm the nerves during frazzled times, she says. “The feedback we get is, ‘Thank you so much for helping us. That was just what we needed at a really weird time.”
Even if it’s through a screen, enhancing our connection to nature is something that Dr Thomas is passionate about. When the zoo’s open, she’s organising volunteers, guest services and school visits. Right now, she’s the only one from a team of 70 allowed to be there. Nonetheless, she believes connection is more important than ever, and that an hour-long otter video gives people the same kind of wellbeing experience they might get from a silly little lockdown walks.
“There’s loads of research and evidence that it does some really super great things,” she says. “It improves your wellbeing, your optimism, resilience, growth mindset.” It also helps people want to recycle or plant trees. “Nature is so good for us.”
In fact, as soon as our Zoom call ends, Thomas is going on a wellbeing walk for herself. “Who knows what I’ll see? That’s the joy of being in nature, whether it’s in the zoo, or taking the same walk around Cox’s Bay and back to my flat.” She encourages others to do it too. “We’re in a very weird stressful space as a nation, (so) try and find or see or smell three things in nature. You don’t know what you’ll see – and that’s really cool.”
That’s one of the reasons Robbins needed to organise a FaceTime with Charlie the orangutan – she’s been spending more time at home than she’d like. “I can’t deal with homeschool … it’s a special kind of hell,” she says. Would she hug Charlie next time she sees him? Um, no. Despite their personal connection, Robbins says close contact with a burly orangutan is unwise. “I don’t know how much he’d want a hug,” she says. “That first hug might be your one and only hug.”
Instead, like old friends, next time Robbins gets the chance, she’ll sit with Charlie and they’ll simply enjoy each other’s company. “They (orangutans) are incredible. They really value and appreciate our company and they show that by coming and being near us and sitting and hanging out,” says Robbins. “They’re a lot smarter than some of the people I know.”