Auckland Zoo Senior ectotherm keeper Sonja Murray - an animal lover with an aptitude and passion for maths and biology, grew up on a lifestyle block in the Wairarapa with a variety of farm animals, cats, dogs, fish, and bird species.

By aged 12 she was eagerly volunteering at Napier’s Marineland - helping with the rehabilitation of injured marine mammals and sea and shore birds. By aged 16, her reputation for reliability and hard work had earned her a full-time role there as a keeper and trainer.

“My Opa (grandfather) was a zookeeper in Amsterdam and then Wellington Zoo, and he also was a lead taxidermist at Te Papa, so a love and fascination for animals is definitely in my blood!” says Sonja, who has worked as an ectotherm keeper here at the Zoo for the past six years. (Sonja has also completed the tertiary animal management qualification; The National Certificate of Animal Management – Zoo Keeping).

“Ectothermic (cold-blooded) species are incredibly sensitive. They rely on their external environment to regulate many of their biological functions, so their husbandry and care, including creating just the right climatic conditions and habitats for them, is quite complex.

“It’s challenging and interesting, and I have the privilege of working with such an incredible diversity of species - from reptiles like Galapagos tortoises and many of our unique endemic skinks and geckos, to amphibians, fishes and invertebrates.”

For Sonja, one of the highlights of her job is the regular mahi she does with Zoo and other conservation colleagues out in the wild.

“Every year, I’m fortunate to lead population surveys of Aotearoa’s critically endangered Alborn skink down on the South Island’s West Coast as part of the support we give to our Department of Conservation (DOC) colleagues.

“This unique taonga species was only discovered in the 1990s, and when the Department of Conservation (DOC) first began its monitoring efforts in 2015, there were just seven individual animals. Fortunately, that number has been increasing.

“We use an approved scientific method called ‘mark-recapture’ to enable us to locate and briefly capture individuals to gather key scientific data. We record GPS of locations individuals are found, take weights, measurements, visual ID/photographs, and obtain tiny tissue samples (from the tail tip) for DNZ analysis. Through all of this, we’re creating an invaluable database and building on our knowledge of this species to help inform its ongoing conservation management. I love this detailed kind of work – which also makes you feel like you’re really contributing,” says Sonja.

When asked what advice she would give to other young girls and women interested in a career in science, Sonja (now aged 30) says “the most obvious path is not always the only path to get to where you want to go”!

“My advice is to use your initiative, work hard, focus on your goals, and don’t be intimated when you look around and don’t see anyone that looks like you, or who you can relate to. Get excited – because that means you can be the first and help pave the way for other women!”