It’s not an easy job looking after over 4000 animals, but for the 17 staff members at Taronga Zoo’s wildlife hospital, it’s a rewarding job.
The day starts at 7am with a team meeting followed by checking-up on the injured animals or preparing them for release, as well as yearly health checks of the entire zoo population. Hospital staff also care for another 1400 animals annually brought in by the public, including blue tongue lizards, red belly snakes and rainbow lorikeets.
Dr Larry Vogelnest, who has been working at the Zoo for 29 years, said the variety of tasks makes it “an amazing place to work”. On any given day, Dr Vogelnest can go from looking after frogs to an elephant.
In some cases the animals have issues that “no one else has seen”, forcing the team to adapt their knowledge from treating domesticated animals. The teams’ knowledge and abilities don’t go unnoticed. Overseas zoo vets often contact the team for advice on how to treat their own animals, especially Australian ones.
“One of the exciting parts of the job is the challenge,” he said.
With the assistance of the veterinary team, including a student, and a dietitian, Dr Vogelnest conducts annual health checks on the tamarins, examining their teeth, eyes and body condition, all of whom appear in good health.
Over the years, the Zoo has broadened its focus from being a place to view animals to become a strong research, education and conservation centre, including its 16 animal recovery programs. The most well-known is the Corroboree frog breeding program which has been running for about eight years. The Zoo’s staff, including those at the wildlife hospital, are also involved in educating school children about sustainability and what goes on behind the scenes.
Hospital manager Libby Hall has been working at Taronga Zoo for 25 years and said, “It is a rollercoaster, one day it can be really exciting — like a birth or a release — but not all are happy days; sometimes it can be about dealing with ill animals or something that’s come in that you cannot save”.
“You can plan the day but that can quickly go out the window,” she said.
Some of her favourite animals to work with are the marine ones, including an 18-year-old turtle known by the team as ‘Squishy’ — a reference to the soft nature of her top shell.
Squishy, who spent a month in the intensive care unit recovering from a neck injury, was released last Thursday and will now form part of the Zoo’s research project tracking turtle movements in the ocean. Over the past four years, the Zoo has tracked 21 turtles and hopes the research will “create areas to better protect marine turtles”, Ms Hall said.
The “icing on the cake” of the job is “helping release animals into the wild and to do research on top of that”, Ms Hall said.
Ms Hall also visits a greater glider, two six-month-old ring-tailed possums and a pelican. Most of the animals are brought out in small knitted pouches, which are neatly stored and folded throughout the hospital. Ms Hall said many of the pouches are knitted by people in retirement homes and donated to the zoo.
Last Tuesday, it was the pelican’s turn to be released. The bird, which has spent the last three weeks recovering from botulism (a disease that can cause paralysis), receives a leg band prior to its release. This will help monitor its movements to better understand its behaviour as part of a national research project.
Ms Hall transports the pelican down the road to Bradleys Head Point, a popular place for newlyweds to tie the knot, and takes the pelican’s carrier basket to the water’s edge.
Looking out at the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the city, Ms Hall cradles the bird before releasing it. The pelican flies straight into the water, paddling around before stretching its wings and flying away.
Ms Hall waves the bird off as it disappears into the distance. Then she turns around, sees the rubbish that’s been discarded on the beach and picks up what she can. The Zoo has just released a bird and they’re not keen to return with a new animal patient that may have swallowed a plastic bag.
Laura is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.