The Wellingtonian interview: Karen Fifield

16:00, Feb 24 2010
Karen Fifield
KAREN FIFIELD: 'It's a matter of ethics. We are the animals' guardians.'

Wellington Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield talks about cruelty to elephants, Wellington's weather and Tahi, the one-legged kiwi.

Wellingtonian: So you're another Australian who's seen the light. What brought you to Wellington?

Fifield: This job. I'd worked in zoos in Australia for nearly 15 years. I was living in Sydney and Alison Lash [Wellington Zoo chief executive] rang to say she was leaving, and to suggest I apply. I'd done some consulting work for Alison and the zoo previously. It was the best career decision I ever made.

Wellingtonian: How have you enjoyed Wellington?

Fifield: I love it. I love the weather, which not everyone can say. Wellington is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. It's a pretty funky city and has been so welcoming to me. I can't imagine not being here and I think it's where I'll always live.

Wellingtonian: As the chief executive, you are running a large business. How important is that aspect compared to a love of animals?


Fifield: Both are important. We want the zoo to become ever more self-funding. But all of us here love the animals.

Wellingtonian: Did you grow up with animals?

Fifield: I grew up in Musswellbrook, north of Sydney. It's a rural town of 7000, and we did see a lot of animals, not just pets but kangaroos and snakes. Lots of stray dogs which I would take home. That's still a weakness of mine.

Wellingtonian: How is Wellington Zoo going? Are visitor numbers steady?

Fifield: Actually numbers are increasing. We had 180,000 visitors last year. It's the most visited paid cultural attraction in Wellington. Our business case calls for a 2 per cent growth per year.

Wellingtonian: Many repeat visitors?

Fifield: Well, 71 per cent of schools in Wellington visit each year. We have 12,000 school students a year through. According to a Wellington City Council survey, 49 per cent of people in Wellington visit each year.

Wellingtonian: Has the new public vet hospital been a success?

Fifield: Extremely. It gives people the chance to see some of the work we do with the animals and the daily viewing sessions have been very popular.

Wellingtonian:Is running a zoo costly?

Fifield: Very expensive. The wage bill is big. We require a lot of staff with specific knowledge. Buying the animals can a costly undertaking. There are 500 animals. We bought three nyala – that's a small antelope – from South Africa. That cost $45,000. If the animals come from Australia, that is not so expensive, but if you're bringing in chimps from Europe or tigers from Asia that will get very expensive.

Wellingtonian: Can't you just breed them here?

Fifield: It's not quite that simple. There is a restricted gene pool here. We keep what you might term stud books on the animals, but after one generation we need to introduce new animals to the gene pool.

Wellingtonian: Any thoughts of Wellington getting an elephant? I remember one from 30 years ago.

Fifield: I would love to have elephants but it won't happen here. I have been involved with buying elephants and the exercise costs tens of millions of dollars. Not only that, but they are very social animals and you must have at least four. We don't have the space to devote to elephants. Perhaps if we owned Newtown Park as well.

Wellingtonian: But I can recall a single elephant being at the zoo.

Fifield: That's true, but our understanding of animals has grown. We would not have one elephant now – that would be cruel. They require company. It's not just a matter of space. It would be like putting a person inside the town hall and leaving it as a bare room. There would be no stimulation for that person, who would probably be happier in a small room with a television and a laptop. It's not just the space, but other factors as well.

Wellingtonian: Some people feel zoos are cruel because animals are taken out of their natural environment.

Fifield: We are learning more and more about animal behaviour. In the 21st century zoos are heavily involved in conservation initiatives. It's a matter of ethics. We are the animals' guardians. We have signed up to their five basic freedoms – ready access to water and food, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.

Wellingtonian: What are the most popular animals?

Fifield: Tahi, our one-legged kiwi is one of the most famous animals in New Zealand. Giraffes are always popular, all the primates, and the pygmy marmosets, which are extraordinarily appealing.

Wellingtonian: How many animals did the zoo have for a start?

Fifield: When it began in 1906, it had one lion, King Dick. That lion, much patted, is now at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea.

The Wellingtonian