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Things you only know if you’re a zookeeper in a bushfire zone

Fiona Melvin and koala
Photograph: Supplied

... according to Fiona Melvin, life science manager, Australian Bush precinct, Melbourne Zoo.

Zookeeping is a very competitive field

“It’s always been a dream [of mine] to work with animals, particularly to be a zookeeper. At Melbourne Zoo we have about 90 keepers and Healesville Sanctuary and Werribee Open Range Zoo are quite a bit smaller. There’s not many jobs, let’s put it that way. People also stay around for a really long time. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with incredible individuals who have been around for over 30 years.”

There’s a lot of planning involved in animal care

“Now I’m in a leadership role so I’m more focussed on leading the department and focusing on strategic direction. However, if I was to work on the ground with keepers, I would be on a round looking after specific animals. I would have a group of animals that I was assigned to, and it would be about the daily husbandry care for them as well as beyond that, planning for improving their welfare. Whether it be enrichment programs, training programs, implementing and investigating nutrition-based programming… It's really quite varied. And obviously we have normal things like meetings, too.” 

How zookeepers became involved in wildlife care during the crisis

"It was identified that we would have to send out vet-safe teams to help. Included in those vet-safe teams were vets, vet nurses as well as a keeper to support the vet staff. So that's how we keepers became involved. I went to Mallacoota [in mid-January] to support the vet team by caring for the patients – mainly koalas – that came into the triage centre. This was quite a diverse role and included everything from setting up for the animals, helping treat them, feed them, occasionally bandaging them and cleaning their enclosures. I also helped the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning find injured animals in the bushfire zone and bring them back to the triage centre for critical care. And I was also able to help transport some koalas who had been rehabilitated back to homes in the wild.”

Koalas are the heroes, but let’s not forget about all the other affected animals

“The majority of animals that came through the triage centre while I was there were the kind of larger, endemic, flagship species: the koalas, the kangaroos, the feather tail gliders. It’s hard because the fires have drastically affected so many other individual species and smaller groups like birds. It was quite interesting for me, going into site and being a bird person, and not seeing any birds.”

Donating money is a good way to fund relief efforts

“It’s about funding the efforts for the people who have the direct skills to help out. So for Zoos Victoria, that’s the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund [donate.zoo.org.au/donation] and then also for long term, maintaining the focus on animals. Those donations will be able to fund long term species assessment and recovery work. Long term, we have to reintroduce these animals into their natural habitat and that would require quite a bit of work at those sites.” 

The response from the community was incredible

“In Mallacoota, we found an amazing community who were incredibly supportive of us being there and also really wanted to show that they were there to help if they could help in any way. So it was quite a humbling experience… just people walking in and being so supportive and happy that we were there.”  

Don’t ask a zookeeper to pick a favourite animal

“That’s a hard one! I try not to be biased because I obviously work with quite a lot of animals. But… it’s really hard not to fall in love with a koala, I’m not going to lie.”

To help support wildlife recovery after the catastrophic bushfires, consider donating to Zoos Victoria’s Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund which has been helping with emergency veterinary assistance on the front line and is also working on long term scientific intervention and species recovery.

Read more from our Things you only know if you're a... column here.

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