An important part of our job at Auckland Zoo is to help people forge a connection with wildlife, there’s even a dedicated part of our Auckland Zoo whānau that focus on fostering these connections – our Animal Experiences team. We believe that for people to make vital changes in their lives that will have a positive impact on a species, that species’ habitat in the wild, and result in essential positive impacts for global issues such as climate change, in many instances people first have to connect with that species, habitat or issue in order to influence positive change.

Guineafowl may not be the first thing that pop into your mind as an ambassador for change, but they have already proven their worth around the zoo as they put smiles on children’s faces, and even give us the opportunity to strike up a conversation with grandparents to grandchildren and everyone in between, to talk about the species, and challenges their habitat faces in the wild.

Shannon is an Animal Experiences Keeper, and part of her role is to come up with ways to engage the public with our animals, ensuring this is both enriching for our animals as well as our visitors. One novel idea, and the first to actually do this in Australasia, was to train our guineafowl to go for walks around the zoo, which is both enriching and exciting for them to explore, and gives our visitors a spectacular close-up look at an animal they otherwise would not see. Guineafowl are a flighty animal, hyper aware of their surroundings, so this was never going to be an easy task! Watch our video as Shannon goes through the entire process, from incubating eggs, to finally having them comfortable to walk around Africa.


Meet Our Fully-Fledged Guineafowl!

Keeper Shannon shows how the team have created a positive training relationship with a group of guineafowl so that they can safely go for enjoyable walks around the zoo – and meet you!

From acting to animals, we sat down with Shannon to learn about how she found herself in a career, where she herself gets to be an ambassador for change.

Tell us about yourself, where are you from?

I grew up down south in a very small town called Geraldine. I actually grew up on a sheep farm, so I've been around animals from a very early age – sheep dogs; sheep, obviously; chickens; cats. Then I moved up to Auckland to study, and I originally studied acting, but then decided that really what I was more passionate about was working with animals, so then I studied that. I moved down to Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch where I was a keeper working with primates for around a year, mostly working with smaller primates like spider monkeys, lemurs, and at times getting to work at their great ape centre. I have been at Auckland Zoo for around three years in the Animal Experiences team.

So, what you get to do now is kind of a combination of those things?

Yes! So, it seems like two things that are so far apart, acting and Zoo keeping, but actually with the role I'm in now, the performance side of things sounds like it wouldn't be as important, but I find the performance side of things is really, really important in our role. If you're not engaging the visitor, they're less likely to take away anything that you're saying, so actually having that background and knowing how to engage an audience was really useful, because I find it a lot easier to hold a crowd and actually be able to get my message across.

Was there one particular thing that inspired you to be a zookeeper?

Yes, I think from what I was saying, being on a farm, being used to mucking in, helping out with lambing season, helping out with health checks, and things that go along with keeping animals. I already that that was what I really love to do.

But the thing that really cinched it for me and one of the main reasons I made the switch from doing acting to zoo keeping was actually my dad. That sounds really corny, but he has always been engaged in what's happening in the world, he does so much research into it, and he was actually the first one that really explained it well to me – the issue of climate change. I don't think I really fully comprehended the issue of climate change until he had that conversation with me, and it was at that point I knew I loved working with animals, but I also wanted to be in a career where I could look back at the end of my career and feel like I had made a difference in something that I was passionate about. I felt like climate change is one of those things that every single person should be doing their part, however big or small as you want, but that was where I saw I could do my part. It might not particularly be the animals I look after, but it might be the message that I'm able to get across. Or if I can motivate others and inspire others to also do their part through working at Auckland Zoo than that’s important!

It’s not an easy job, there must be some really hard days and weeks, what keeps you going?

One of the main things that keeps me going, is genuinely when I turn up at work, and having the animals greet you. We're such a big part of their world, so even if I've had a bad day or have things on my mind, the parrots don't know that, they just see me and they want to either hang out or do a training session, so you put everything aside, and it all seems to go away, especially if it's a training sessions because it's just that connection that you have with the animals that you work with.

So there's that side of things, and then the other side of things that keeps you going, which I think is what keeps everyone going, is your overall greater goal of doing your part. It’s the bigger thing you can always refer back to if you're unsure, or you're having a hard week, because that is still your ultimate aim. I love that when I come in, Bunji always says hello, or goodbye.

Who’s Bunji?

I have worked with our galah, Bunji, from when he was a really young chick, so the majority of his life. He's only two years old now, but through that time, I've been one of the main people training him on different behaviours. Training’s like a language, there's been times for example when I've been trying to train ‘wing lift’ with him. That was a fairly hard one and it took a while. And there was a huge period where you could tell it was a bit of confusion and he wasn't really understanding. Then when he started to get it, like the very first time he got it, I just felt like we both knew that he got it, it's like you're working as a team and then when you achieve the goal, it's like you've both achieved that goal, not just me as the trainer or him as the animal. You've both achieved that. So, I have a good relationship with him, sometimes I can train him even without the food reward, he just likes to hang out, or if you're really excited he loves you to say “good boy Bunji”. Sometimes that's reward enough because he likes it when you're interacting with him on that level. He's the best bird!

The birds in our video are definitely not galah! So on to guineafowl – what’s the one best thing been for you during this whole process?

It would have to come down to two things because I really I can't decide! I think probably my best thing in the training process was the moment when I had seeds in my hand, and I was trying to get them to follow me. One of them actually flew over and landed on my arm, and then another one flew and landed on my arm, and then they just both sat on my arms, eating the seeds!! It was just knowing how difficult it was to even get them to the point where they were comfortable enough to just follow me. So to see them that invested in the training session, to actually fly up and land on my arm, which, if you saw them from the beginning they were terrified of arms and hands and everything, so to know that I was able to get them to a point where they were that confident was a huge feat for such a flighty bird.

The other really exciting part, was one time when we took them out and walked them in the education area of the zoo. We had a small family come over and the kids were genuinely obsessed with the guineafowl, but also the family in general, didn't know what guineafowl were at all, that they even existed. And to have their very first interaction right up close to them, where the kids could see them so clearly, to give them that connection, and be able to tell them what a guineafowl was, and the kids just really seemed to love them. So seeing what they're able to do in terms of having that interaction with visitors, because you don't often think that something like guineafowl would be able to produce that kind of connection, but for children they're really cool bird. That was a really cool experience.

How would you describe a guineafowl?

Well there's actually a meme and they call it something like ‘loud alarm chicken’. But if I was to actually describe them… well I think it's funny because people so often judge animals on what they perceive as intelligent, but that's where I think you go wrong. People can often disregard an animal because they don't think it’s intelligent, but really an animal is as intelligent as it needs to be to survive in its environment. So if you actually look at how well guineafowl do, and the sort of adaptations that they have for surviving, they are really well adapted animals. They might not have good problem solving skills, but I would say they're incredibly alert, and that they always know what's going on around them. They're really powerful birds as well – they've got a really powerful kick, and they've also got a complex social structure. I think they’re really quirky, and they’re really good alarm birds as well, people actually have them on farms, because if anything new appears that they might perceive as a threat (so basically just everything new) they alarm call. And also – this is a funny one – but, a group of guineafowl is also sometimes called a confusion of guineafowl, and I love that. Can you imagine like a big flock of them? Confusion is the most apt name for that!

What’s the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job would be… I just want to say the animals I work with. Every day is different, they always keep you on your toes.

That's what makes you come in every day?

I don't know how else to say it, just the animals I work with. The connection and the bond you have with them, and having the privilege of everyone working towards the same goal.