“I’m leaving the Zoo, but the Zoo isn’t leaving me,” says senior primate keeper Christine Tintinger, who is retiring today after a remarkable 44-year career at Auckland Zoo that she began in 1979 as one very excited 21-year-old.

Over her many thousands of days as a keeper, Christine has given her all (and more!), fulfilling a childhood dream to work with animals (primarily primates) from around the world and sharing her passion for wildlife and the environment. (Some Auckland Zoo fans may remember Christine as a regular on the Zoo’s original and hugely popular 1999-2012 television series ‘The Zoo,’ which screened here in Aotearoa and in millions of homes overseas).

The now 65-year-old’s young dream was heavily influenced by the books she devoured by world-renowned zookeeper, naturalist and conservationist, the late Gerald Durrell, a champion of scientific research to advance animal care in zoos and help wildlife in the wild.

“When I first approached the Zoo for a job in 1977 just out of 7th Form at Epsom Girls Grammar, then curator Graham Meadows could see how keen I was, but wisely advised me to go and gain some life experience first! Working with children was always my backup option, so I trained in and worked as a Karitane nurse, helping care for new mothers and their babies. I also enrolled in the animal-care course that Graham and Richard Elliot set up at the Auckland Institute of Technology (now Auckland University of Technology) and would come into the Zoo on my days off to do animal observations.”

A love for the mahi

Christine says: “To some people, 44 years may sound like a ridiculously long time to be in one job, but the time has sped by, and I’ve been doing what I love with an amazing team of colleagues, many of whom have become like family”.

“Zookeeping is both a physically and mentally demanding job, so it challenges and rewards you in so many ways. Although there’s a level of routine and lots of planning, every day is different and we’re always learning. We’re strongly science based, so as new scientific knowledge or technology emerges, we need to adapt and advance how we care for and manage animals. The weather changes, as living beings the animals are constantly changing. There are births, deaths, veterinary procedures, training programmes to facilitate animal health checks, departures and arrivals, and unpredictable things just happen –and you’re then suddenly having to turn on a dime. I’m not a person who naturally loves change, but I find this exciting, even if I might also be pulling my hair out at the same time!”

While not Auckland Zoo’s first female zookeeper, Christine was among a small number of women breaking into a very male dominated profession.

“Back when I started, there was a bit of an old boys’ club and a belief that women weren’t strong enough to do some of the physical work or to care for megafauna like elephants, which has nothing to do with strength and everything to do with the relationship you build.

“I was so interested in the work that nothing would stop me. If I couldn’t get help, I’d find a way to safely do things and I really enjoyed gaining practical skills. Fortunately, attitudes soon started to change; the Zoo kept pace with societal changes, and more and more women were employed. Today more than half of our animal care and conservation staff are women, and diversity in every sense, is embraced across the Zoo,” says Christine.

A passion for primates

After initially working with giraffes, then stints on the ectotherm and carnivore teams, Christine was finally offered her dream job in 1991- a senior position on the primate team.

“I’ve always been fascinated by primates (apes, monkeys, prosimians) but have felt especially privileged to have worked so closely and for so long with such highly intelligent great ape species such as chimpanzees and orangutans.

Christine says while the impacts of Auckland Zoo’s thankfully relatively short ‘tea party’ chimpanzee era (1956-63) was the sad legacy of an international trend in zoos last century, helping care for chimpanzee Janie (who died aged 60 in 2013) has been a real highlight.

“Caring for Janie and her fellow humanised ‘tea party’ chimpanzees Josie and Bobbie, who all came together from London (Regent’s Park) Zoo in 1956, was all about restoring these individuals’ dignity and respect and giving them the best possible quality of life within the environmental limitations of what they were comfortable with.

“My approach with all animals is to treat them as I’d want to be treated, positively and with kindness and respect. As she was the longest-lived, I had the honour of being in Janie’s life for 34 years. What she most needed was for us to be in her company, to give her extended periods of quality time, being there to reassure her, as well as keep her mentally and physically enriched. She was very smart and funny, and an incredible communicator who could be very vocal! Over time we developed a deep friendship with mutual respect and understanding. She would always greet me with such joy and excitement, a memory that still moves me to this day,” says Christine.

For Christine, how Auckland Zoo has evolved since opening in 1922, and the philosophical and physical transformations she’s personally witnessed since 1979, are a part of what has made the Zoo such a dynamic and fascinating place to work.

An outstanding highlight

“The ongoing advancements in habitat design alone has been ground-breaking and reflect Auckland Zoo’s reputation as a progressive modern zoo, with a drive to keep doing better. So much research and consultation, including with the animal care staff, goes into creating habitats to ensure they contribute to the highest standards of animal care and welfare. These environments also provide brilliantly immersive experiences for our visitors to connect with the animals, really feel they’re in nature, and give great insight into how species live. When you walk into the forest in Te Wao Nui, our Aotearoa Track, look out across the savannah in our Africa Safari Track, or sweat through our hot, steamy Indonesian swamp forest where it rains and is teeming with flora, you really are being transported to these different worlds!

Christine says being able to celebrate the long-awaited completion of the Southeast Asia Jungle Track (the Zoo’s largest ever development!) and see the vision for the high canopy habitat fully realised, has been one of the greatest highlights of her 44 years.

“It’s incredible to see the Zoo’s orangutans and siamangs having the choice and ability to be as they are - truly arboreal (living high in the trees) and ranging across this amazing 2km network of 25m high aerial pathways throughout their habitat and right out over the Zoo’s Lake. Seeing them move and behave just as their counterparts do in the wild is brilliant. These experiences offer great opportunities to engage our visitors about the threats these primates and many other Southeast Asian wildlife are under, about practical ways we can all help - like using the PalmOil Scan app to shop sustainably and about how we’re supporting the critical work of numerous conservation partners in Sumatra.”   

Christine says even though the Track’s high canopy was completed a few years ago now, she is still blown away by the level of detail that was worked through to achieve this result.

“You have the canopy climbers (the tree-like structures with ropes that create the jungle mid-canopy and also facilitate access to the aerial pathways) set in amongst the lush and maturing vegetation. These climbers give the orangutans and siamangs such great elevation, shelter, and resting spots, and interesting ways to move through the habitat. They also facilitate them being able to climb up into the large nests and branch structures right in front of the shared shelter windows where visitors can connect with and see them up close. In addition, all of the high canopy habitat’s inside areas support these primates to be arboreal.

“Right now, visitors are also able to experience the absolute joy of watching Melur and Charlie’s irrepressible two-year-old son Bahmi who is very busy developing his climbing skills and interacting with his new ‘aunty’ and playmate, 11-year-old female orangutan Daya,” says Christine.

A great place to work!

Christine says the great joy of her retiring and conveniently living close to the Zoo, is that she’ll be able to visit at her leisure to catch up with many Zoo friends - human and animal, which will of course include orangutans Charlie, Melur, Bahmi, and Daya and siamangs Kera and Intan.

The Zoo’s flora will be another motivating reason to visit.

“I have always been in awe of the stunningly creative landscaping and rich diversity of flora created throughout the grounds by Auckland Zoo’s small but perfectly formed award-winning horticulture team. The geographically themed animal habitats created in recent decades are world class,” says Christine.

“The team’s most recent creation, the Indonesian swamp forest habitat created within a climate-controlled tropical dome as part of the Southeast Asia Jungle Track is reason alone for anyone to visit the Zoo and is especially enjoyable in winter.”

Reflecting on what it is that has made Auckland Zoo such a great place to have spent almost her entire adult working life (and got her out of bed each morning, even on the miserably cold rainy ones!) Christine says, it is without a doubt, the people!

“Pretty much everyone who works at the Zoo, in varying degrees and capacities loves the natural world and wants to see our wildlife and wild places looked after and protected for everyone’s benefit, so we have this common purpose and passion uniting us. There’s also this very strong sense of family, camaraderie, and teamwork. Like families of course, we don’t always all get on with everyone all of the time! But we really know how to support each other during the good, the bad and the sad. In tough times, as we did during Covid, we really support each other, and in good times, we celebrate. It’s gold, and is what has kept me here so long, along with caring for the animals. I’m leaving with a very strong sense of belonging!”