Natureland Zoo is saying goodbye to its long-serving supporter and operations manager Gail Sutton.
Sutton has been at the zoo and wildlife centre's operations manager for the past 15 years, but started volunteering for Natureland back in 1991.
She had her final day last week with a special staff morning tea, and the public will get a chance to say goodbye and pass on their well wishes on September 5, when Natureland holds it open day.
Natureland's co-owner Mike Rutledge described Sutton as the "matriarch of the place".
"Without her absolute determination over 20 years, it's unlikely that Natureland would have remained open," he said. It was her commitment that had got the place through some tough times and near closures.
For Sutton, over the years there has been a number of highlights in her work.
"Just little achievements we've made, like progression with zookeeping and things like that. But, a lot of it was just watching the kids' faces when they met with something or learnt about something - the interactions and that side of it," Sutton said.
Another highlight was working with rescue and release programmes and seeing injured wildlife recover and go back to their natural homes.
To her, all the animals she worked with were special in their own way.
She hand-reared a number of them, including Ricky, a special needs capuchin monkey she worked with right through his 17 years.
Sutton felt it was time to retire after Rutledge and his wife Meg, a zoologist, took over the zoo and wildlife centre last year.
"My vision all through the years was to see it grow and prosper and be a really valuable part of Nelson and have a valuable place within the zoo industry and captive management, and especially with rescue and relief," she said.
"I know now that with Mike and Meg coming on board, there is a huge future here for Natureland, because they come with a huge skill set between them, but they are just going to move it ahead now and with the support of the Nelson community it is just going to grow and be a real icon."
In her new spare time, Sutton plans to catch up with family, travel around in her caravan, get into the garden, and "do some of those jobs that have been stacked in the corner or in the job jar for a few years".
She will be on-site wandering around on the open day for people to come and have a chat.
"It's just been awesome working with the Nelson community all these years. The support from them and the input from them has just been pretty overwhelming at times. I think everybody knows Natureland has had a hard struggle," Sutton said.
On the open day entry for Natureland will be rolled back - $1 for the kids and $3 for adults - and from 11am until 3pm there will be food and decorations.
- The Nelson Mail
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