A walk on the wild side

HELPING HAND: Auckland zookeeper Emma Wells with an armful of orphaned vervet monkeys she hand-reared in Africa.
HELPING HAND: Auckland zookeeper Emma Wells with an armful of orphaned vervet monkeys she hand-reared in Africa.

Auckland zookeeper Emma Wells has worked with all creatures great and small. She talks to Jenny Ling about her passion for conservation and the carnivores, primates, penguins, meerkats and mongoose that have shaped her career.

You could say Emma Wells was destined to become a zookeeper.

During one of her regular visits to Auckland Zoo as a toddler with her aunt she unwittingly dropped her "blankie" into the polar bear enclosure.

Little Emma never got her blankie back. But the moment was ingrained in her memory, perhaps sparking the career that took her around the world before her return to Auckland Zoo five years ago.

"It was one of my favourite places to go," she says. "I always knew as a kid I wanted to be a zookeeper."

Ms Wells followed her calling, undertaking a four-year zoology degree at Auckland University in the mid-1990s.

After she graduated, the New Lynn resident packed her bags and went travelling.

She landed at a wildlife park in County Cork in Ireland and began working the ticket counter, picking up rubbish and driving the tourist train.

But a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 meant the park was closed and she lost her job.

Ms Wells found work at a small zoo near Brighton, England, which was able to stay open through stringent health and safety procedures.

There she worked as a small carnivore keeper. Her charges included otters, meerkats, mongooses and porcupines.

But the Emerald Isle called her back and she spent another two years in Ireland as a warden for a variety of animals including giraffes, cheetahs, primates, penguins, eagles and seals.

"It gave me a really good varied grounding to work with all species.'

"It had one of the largest giraffe herds in Europe at the time - we were having calves born on a regular basis."

A career highlight was a trip to Africa where she volunteered at a wildlife rescue rehabilitation centre for three months.

She hand-reared dozens of baby vervet monkeys which were later released back into the wild.

"A lot of them would come in and they had been orphaned.

"Their mums would have been shot or poisoned or run over so all these babies were coming in. At one point I was looking after eight . . . getting up to bottle-feed them several times a night. It was very intensive. By the time I left I'd hand-reared 28. I loved it, it was such rewarding work."

Another job on the island of Jersey, off the northern coast of France, proved equally inspiring.

There she worked at the Durrell Wildlife Park, owned by the English naturalist and zookeeper Gerald Durrell, which focuses on conservation work.

Ms Wells spent three years working with endangered sumatran orangutans, bats, gorillas and a range of threatened birds.

"It was amazing. I probably wouldn't have left had I not been wanting to come back to my family," she says.

Ms Wells returned to New Zealand in 2008 and has been working at Auckland Zoo in the primate section, then as a carnivore keeper.

She now looks after several aviaries filled with native birds like kea, blue duck, kiwi, tui and bellbirds.

Though she works regular hours, "every day is different".

"Generally things don't stay the same. You're checking the health and wellbeing of the animals, feeding and cleaning them and providing enrichment . . . something to stimulate them through the day.

"We want to add things or remove things to make life a bit more different for them."

Central Leader