Thanks to the vision of Auckland Zoo senior vet, Dr An Pas, and the sewing skills of some talented volunteers, the Zoo’s veterinary team and zookeepers are arguably sporting the smartest looking and most sustainable surgical masks in the country!

Anticipating a possible world shortage of commercially available masks due to Covid-19 and noticing their rising cost, An, who hails from Belgium, decided to get ahead of the game. While researching on a Belgian website, she came across a pattern for cloth masks developed by a Taiwanese doctor - approved and endorsed by Belgian’s government and medical doctors, as a good alternative to commercially produced masks.

“We wanted to ensure we’d have enough for our veterinary team, for those keepers caring for our primate and carnivore species, and to also ensure these staff could be protected from each other,” says An. “Given humans are primates, and we can clearly get Covid-19, we’d taken the extra precaution of having our primate keepers wear masks and gloves when working with any of our primate species. With the more recent international scientific evidence of possible human to cat transmission of Covid-19, we have extended this extra protection to all our carnivore species. What we also really like about these cloth masks is that they can be washed and sterilised for re-use again and again.”

To see about getting the masks made, An approached the Zoo’s volunteer manager Jill Conway, who quickly phoned volunteer coordinator and craft lover and quilter, Diana Hennin. Diana promptly put a message out to zoo volunteers asking if any volunteers in her neighbourhood had any fabric – specifically 100% cotton and lightweight. While she had two sewing machines, she knew her material stocks weren’t flash and she “couldn’t just walk into Spotlight or even shop online”.

“I got a message back in no time from volunteer and friend Beth Chapman who lives just around the road in St Heliers. She had some fabric and could get more from another friend nearby, but her sewing machine was up at her bach. Excellent I thought! I carefully sterilised my spare machine and left it on her front lawn for her to collect,” says Diana.

From their own bubbles, Diana explains before cracking on with the job, she and Beth collaborated to create several prototypes to perfect the pattern and ensure An was happy the masks would fit and meet all requirements. These would then be couriered to An at the Zoo’s vet hospital, our New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine.

“Once we got the go-ahead we were away, and Beth, who has done the bulk of the sewing, has been an absolute machine. I’d cut a lot of the masks out ready for sewing, and then bike around to Beth’s to leave a package on her lawn. Initially it was pretty weird to not be able to have any personal contact with someone I knew so well. Leaving packages on her lawn, then quickly biking off so she could safely come out at collect made me feel like I was in the middle of a spy novel! Beth would do the same for me – biking around to drop off her package of completed masks on my lawn. Of course, these Covid-19 safety measures are our new normal now,” says Diana.

Making the perfect mask

The two sewing queens have now made over 100 masks. Many are now in use, with tiger, cheetah, elephant and other kids’ animal themed prints, including Peter Rabbit, proving popular. Now, with the help of another keen Zoo volunteer and sewer, Glenda Ray from West Auckland, they are in the process of making another 70.

The masks are made of two layers of 100% lightweight cotton, like a mini pillowcase allowing for an extra filter to be inserted in between.

“After use, they are hot soap-washed, dried, then put through an auto-clave machine for sterilisation at 134 degrees Celsius – a rigorous process to not just kill possible corona virus but any infectious agent – and to which they are holding up well. This requires a great logistical daily effort from our veterinary nurses who have now established a system to process them as efficiently as possible,” explains An.

Both Diana and Beth, experienced sewers, say while the masks look simple, they are actually very fiddly to make with their little plies needed to make them fit well onto one’s face which is essential to be effective, and the need to create the masks’ ties out of cotton as well due to elastic not being able to withstand the sterilisation process.

For Beth, also a keen quilter who has sewn all her life, their being fiddly has been a good challenge. The ex-nurse and Auckland Zoo volunteer guide, who is missing the Zoo animals and her people focused role, says the mask project came as a welcome focus under lockdown.

“I’m really loving it. I wake up early, about 5.30am, make myself a cup of tea and I’m sewing by 6am. It’s lovely and it’s nice to be helping. I’ve also enjoyed being able to get out of a bit of cooking while doing it as well!

In true community spirit, Beth spread the word about the need for more fabric while none could be purchased, and along with friends, she had a kind cousin in Wellington sending her up fabrics, as well as raiding her own linen cupboard to find a new king-sized sheet she promptly washed and cut up so it could be used as lining for the masks. Her latest fabric stash from her Wellington cousin appropriately features frogs, butterflies, insects and plants.

Vet An and her colleagues are full of praise for the way the volunteers have come to the rescue so quickly and overcome all the logistics of getting the materials to get the job done.

“Diana and Beth have done an amazing job, and we’re so grateful to them. The masks are very well made, and they are tweaking them as we go to make them as comfortable as possible. Having to wear a mask most of the day while working is not really pleasant so developing a mask that does the job but also fits well is really important.  Along with still using commercial masks for the likes of open surgeries and necropsies, we now have a great supply of cloth masks that we can use and re-use for many animal checks and simple procedures, as well as for our primate and carnivore keepers who will most likely need to be using these masks for some time to come,” says An.