After a successful 25-year career as a winemaker, Toby Cooper has his glass full again with life as an Auckland Zoo multi-team keeper and study - for a Bachelor of Science, majoring in animal management and biodiversity.   

There’s boundless enthusiasm from the 50-year-old who describes his second career as “living the dream” – a dream with a big vision and exciting conservation aspirations!

Securing one of the Zoo’s new and highly sought-after multi-team keeper roles in May follows Toby completing Unitec’s New Zealand Certificate in Animal Management in 2020, and two years of volunteering with us, assisting both the primate and carnivore teams. At the same time, he was also volunteering with the SPCA and Ark in the Park (Waitākere Ranges).

Toby’s been assigned to both the carnivore and primate teams and will also be doing Wild Work - heading out with other Zoo staff and partners to work on vital wildlife conservation field projects throughout Aotearoa.

However, with the COVID-19 lockdown here in Tāmaki Makaurau, his mahi for now, is safely confined to the carnivore team bubble with carefully distanced teammates, along with red pandas, otters, meerkats, lions, cheetahs, Tasmanian devils, porcupines, and wallabies.  In time though, there’ll be further training on more animal sections to gain the knowledge and experience to have the flexibility to work where he’s most needed.

The journey from winemaking to zookeeping

While the workload was “frankly ridiculous”, Toby says winemaking offered great variety and “was a really fun industry to be part of”. With his partner, he re-established and literally transformed a defunct winery and derelict vineyard in Te Kauwhata, building it up to become one of New Zealand’s top export wineries. They did everything from managing the vineyard, making and bottling the wine, to marketing and sales, and loved it.

So why now, midlife in 2021, be a zookeeper? 

Let’s go back 29 years, when the 21-year-old was opportunistically offered a job at Auckland Zoo for a nine-month stint and received on-the-job training to assist on the primate section.

Toby’s brother-in-law happened to be a lead keeper, and at the time let him know the Zoo needed some extra staff. He recalls this being due to the large number of keeping staff required to help with monitoring duties in the veterinary hospital as Auckland Zoo stepped up to help the Department of Conservation’s Kākāpō Recovery Programme. These efforts resulted in the first-ever kākāpō (Hoki) being incubated and hatched outside of the wild and in a zoo!  

“This time at the Zoo was an incredible experience and it planted a seed in me that’s grown into a passion for conservation. I got to work with extraordinary animals like orangutans, cotton-top tamarins and diana monkeys,” explains Toby, who continues to have a soft spot for orangutans.

Travel and volunteering

Leap forward to 2017 as Toby began feeling he was “done with winemaking and “half-pie looking for a second career”.

“I was on holiday in Thailand and ended up volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, an amazing rescue and rehabilitation centre in Chiang Mai province. I got to meet the founder, Lek Saengduean Chailert – she’s a legend in elephant conservation and gave us volunteers a presentation that was so inspiring, it planted yet another seed.”

In 2018, Toby travelled further afield to Africa, visiting wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, speaking to rangers and other staff about their conservation efforts and the challenges they were facing.   

Next stop for this man on a mission was Borneo, volunteering at International Animal Rescue’s Orangutan Conservation Centre in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province. 

“My time volunteering on this project (that encompasses protection, rescue, rehabilitation, and release of successfully rehabilitated orangutans back to protected forest habitat) was just mind-blowing, and even more inspiring

“At night, thankfully with working wifi, I found myself furiously researching from my phone, what study I could do for a career in wildlife conservation, which is how I finally ended up finding Unitec’s captive wild animal course,” explains Toby.

The role of good zoos

It was here, working alongside several zookeepers from Chester Zoo that Toby had many a deep and meaningful chat about the ethics and role of zoos, and his eyes, mind and heart opened further.

“A few years ago, I was one of those people who did have questions about zoos, because I didn’t fully understand what the good, accredited ones, like Auckland Zoo – a wildlife conservation science organisation, are doing. As I began researching, I soon learnt.

“People come from all over the world to work at Auckland Zoo because of its stellar reputation as a world-class zoo, and the amazing amount of active conservation work it does. While doing the captive wild animal course (at Unitec) we had a day a week work experience at the Zoo. I learnt so much, and really had my eyes opened, particularly when working on the bird and ectotherm sections, as to just how far-reaching this work is.”

“I feel so proud and privileged to work at Auckland Zoo. The staff here are extraordinary, and their expertise and commitment are second to none, it’s inspiring and just makes me want to be the best keeper that I can be,” says Toby.

Reflecting on the purpose of zoos, Toby says good zoos play so many important roles, from active conservation, breeding programmes and research, to connecting people with wildlife and education – these he believes probably having the “the biggest impact and scope”.

“I think if we can instil in the next generation a love of wildlife and the need for biodiversity – then the battle is half won!”

Dreaming big!

A global citizen - Toby was born to Kiwi parents in the UK, and lived in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Sydney before settling in Auckland - the newly qualified zookeeper would love long-term to work be working to help effect change in the area of human-animal conflict.

“After I’ve completed my BSc, I’d love to do a Masters in anthrozoology (the study of humans’ relationship with animals). While human-animal conflict is complicated – coming up with mitigation strategies and public policies to support these strategies can be achieved and it’s these that have amazing long-term effects.”

Toby says his dream job would be working at Auckland Zoo for nine months of the year and spending three months doing conservation work in the wild – either in Aotearoa or overseas.

“There are just so many incredible projects out there, and honestly it feels like work in this field has never been more vital. The ever-increasing pace of the loss of biodiversity, the rapidly expanding human population, the constantly growing list of species that are imminently threatened with extinction. We truly are at a crossroads in the fight to save and protect the biosphere and every single small thing that any of us do is so important.


Introducing zoo keeper Toby!

Toby discusses his path from volunteering and learning about conservation projects in the wild, to joining Auckland Zoo as a multi-team keeper.

The science of care - training

For now, Toby’s focus is on growing his knowledge and practical skills in the science of care of the many different species he’s working with.

Having done the Unitec course, Toby says he had already gained a lot of insight into the Zoo’s holistic and incredibly high standards of animal care to ensure each animal’s physical, mental, and psychological wellbeing, and is learning on the job every single day.

He says one aspect of zookeeping that a lot of people might not be aware of, is just what a vital role training plays in animal care.

“Training is a really big and important part of our role as zookeepers – and the amount that happens right across the Zoo here is pretty extraordinary. For example, there are simple tasks like getting a red panda to walk onto scales to weigh it or train it to go into a crate in preparation for an upcoming move. There’s training a Galapagos tortoise to accept a keeper taking bloods from its neck, and even more sophisticated training like getting a primate like male orangutan Charlie to accept having an ECG, or female Wanita to take medication via a nebuliser.”

“We want the animals to have as natural a life and to be as non-invasive as possible, but we still need them to do things like this with us, that are for them - to keep them as healthy as they can be.”

Advice to aspiring zookeepers

To anyone out there thinking about a career in zookeeping, Toby’s advice is “take a scatter-gun approach and do everything you can think of!”

“If you’re interested in becoming a zookeeper, you don’t have to go and quit your job – you can volunteer and do some study while working. For example, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has some great online courses for free – that can give you a grounding in the likes of biodiversity issues and what DOC is doing.

“Volunteer for as many things as you can, and you’ll find the more you do, the more you will find out about just how much there is you can do, and then it just snowballs.

“Lastly, be aware this is a tough field to get into, and it’s not highly paid, but there are very few jobs in life that are as rewarding and as meaningful as this.”