Working with animals, in a world-leading zoo, as a veterinary nurse, sounds like a dream job to animal enthusiasts far and wide. After sitting down with Auckland Zoo Clinical Coordinator, Mikaylie Wilson, I seriously doubt many could actually fathom what zoo veterinary nursing may entail, as she tells me about the time she spent a month bathing from billabongs, with wild guests of the crocodilian and dingo kind – all in the name of conservation. Exuding confidence and competence, you just get the feeling that this woman is tough, she’s seen it all and done it all, and for New Zealand Veterinary Nurse Awareness Week, she absolutely deserves a celebration of her career.

Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, is a rugged wilderness characterised by rocky cliffs and ridges, gorges, rivers and waterfalls. Most notably it’s home to Aboriginal landowners, and has been for tens of thousands of years, with permits required to enter. Sent in with a month’s worth of supplies, and dealing with zero basic amenities, extreme heat, and some tough yakka ahead, you wouldn’t be far off the mark to imagine a ‘Man vs Wild’ situation. Yet when asked about a defining conservation project in her career, Mikaylie speaks fondly of her time in Arnhem Land, where she was sent in by the Northern Territory State Government to research the effects of bush fires and controlled burn offs on local wildlife, and got to experience this magnificent landscape in a vet nurse capacity.

“Being in the middle of nowhere, taking in everything you need, you're pushed to your limits, some days it's incredibly hot. But you're seeing some incredible species – sugar gliders, black-footed tree rats, lots of geckos and snakes. It just stands out because you're all in, you're isolated, and you've got a massive variety of species. Conservation in its simplest form, you're actually out there doing it.”

This kind of work is incredibly vital. Climate change is pushing bushlands and rainforests to the brink, with worldwide examples of bushfires increasing in frequency. As a way of managing fires, controlled burn offs are undertaken, which is why trapping, sampling and monitoring the species returning to this area is imperative to attempt to avoid an ecological disaster.

“We were digging the pitfall trap holes, setting up insect traps, invertebrate pitfall traps, traps for the black-footed tree rats and other small marsupials. So other than birds, we were getting a whole view of what was coming into that exact location.”

Sitting under a tent in the intense heat, Mik and an accompanying vet were responsible for anesthetising all the animals caught, taking blood and tissue samples, checking for external parasites, collecting faecals, and giving an overall health check before releasing them. The idea was to determine if after the fires, animals were returning to the area, but also the condition they were in when doing so. They undertook this work for around three weeks at a time, working off generators, and always keeping a keen ear out for the rustling of leaf litter, indicating possible visitors of the dingo or reptilian kind entering the camp. A billabong was the only water source for collecting drinking water and water to bathe in, but you would never do so without checking for crocodiles first! But it seems this is simply conservation work at its finest, as Mikaylie recalls another similar project in the Simpson Desert in the heat of summer.

“You really do have to be tough to deal with it. I did a three-week project in summer, in the Simpson Desert, I’m talking 55 degrees Celsius. We’re in tents in the desert, and there were barely any trees for shelter. Man, that was a challenge, but I loved it, it's hell while you're in it but now, the thought of it is just what keeps me going. Your back is so covered in flies, it looks like you've got a black t-shirt on. But then you can laugh about it later.”

It’s incredible. Unfathomable. Something the average person wouldn’t put themselves through. But it really is all in the name of conservation. Everything is connected. This is how you save a species. Research. Data. Science. And for people like Mikaylie, it comes down to ‘always having had a heart for wildlife’. Spending her first few years on a farm, followed by a rural lifestyle in Australian country town, Wagga Wagga, seems to be where it all began. Surrounded by cattle, goats, ducks, dogs, as well as the odd wild echidna, snake and blue tongue lizard, this is what lit the fire, ignited a passion, and it taught her a specific way of life. Surrounded by wildlife lovers, and with parents who walked the talk when it came to the natural world, it’s no surprise Mikaylie has found herself 20 years deep into this field.

“We were very much exposed to it all the time. We were only allowed to watch documentaries growing up, we weren't allowed to watch any sport or anything. And it’s inspiring to grow up with David Attenborough. I had braces as a kid… I didn't get these stunning teeth naturally. When I was in the clinic, waiting, I would rip out all the animal pictures from the books and magazines, and pin them all over my wall. I used to save up my money and buy encyclopaedias, the ones with cute pictures in them. I didn't have every volume, I had an orangutan one, and a seal one, and just particular volumes with great pictures in them, because I loved the animals.”

A very real drive to succeed landed Mikaylie in a job at Taronga Zoo as soon as she’d completed her nursing certificate. She was already skilled and experienced by the time she graduated, going to extreme lengths to make her dream a reality. Completing work experience during school at a vet clinic and a zoo, she also spent ten hours commuting every month throughout her TAFE studies to be able to simultaneously volunteer at Western Plains Zoo.

“Working with animals, well it was the only thing I was ever going to do. Actually, I was only ever going to be an orangutan keeper, but the way I saw it in a small town was get the practice in the local vet clinic, which will allow me to get into the zoo, thinking when I'm in the zoo then I'll transfer to be a primate keeper, particularly on orangutans. However, when I got the job as a nurse in the zoo, I decided that actually I really like the variety of working with all species, more than my love of orangutans.”

Zoo medicine and zookeeping go hand in hand with conservation, and when there’s a real tangible purpose for zoo skills, combined with a passion and drive to save wildlife, bit by bit, good zoos can really achieve something great. Mikaylie stayed at Taronga Zoo for eight years, committing herself to brush-tail wallaby field work in the Jenolan Caves, before moving on to Vancouver Aquarium to work in marine mammal rescue, then on to Perth Zoo in her first supervising position, where she also contributed a great deal to red tail black cockatoo as well as sea lion field work. Mikaylie then moved on to Alaska Sea Life Centre in a volunteer capacity to work with seal rehabilitation, before getting offered the Clinical Coordinator position at Auckland Zoo, and has now been here eight years.

“Before Auckland Zoo, another memorable project I was involved in, was when I helped organise the satellite tagging of Australian sea lions bulls. After organising how to do the project, there were then so many days the team were out there darting on the beach, and it's really awesome because you're down there anesthetising a bull and putting these tags on them, you've got six or eight bulls around you, and you’ve got people standing there guarding you with a stick, and only a meter away the bulls are right there. I just love all that, being a part of it right in there. You've got to watch where you're stepping as you can't just move fast.”

As Clinical Coordinator at Auckland Zoo, Mikaylie coordinates the nursing team and general day to day operations of the hospital, as well as still getting to live out her field work aspirations. Just looking at the past month, her day could involve taking part in a general anaesthetic procedure for a lion; treating the huge variety of native wildlife we rehabilitate and care for at Auckland Zoo; monitoring the development of golden lion tamarin babies; administering treatment to a kākāpō from Whenua Hou suffering from cloacitis; kākāpō field work on an offshore island; and generally coordinating the clinic, whilst teaching and sharing her experience with the other nurses.

Mikaylie can name the three animals she is most passionate about – kākāpō, rhinoceros, and sea lions. All of these animals happen to have a critically endangered status, and Mik is pulled in this direction for field work projects. Her face lights up when she talks about these particular species, the passion and love is tangible, and just recently, she was fortunate enough to witness the birth of Auckland Zoo’s first Southern white rhino calf in 20 years.

We took young chimps into the forest to teach them how to climb trees, you'd be surprised that they don't actually know how to do that confidently. So, we would take them, and then sit in the trees and get them to climb up in the tree. We'd help them swing, and then they'd jump to us.

Mikaylie Wilson, clinical coordinator at Auckland Zoo

“It just was one of the best things ever to be down there. Tommy (Team Leader of Ungulates) rang me when the rhino was giving birth. That's another part of my job, whenever there's a species about to give birth in the zoo that hasn't before, I pull together all the hand-rearing details and make sure we're ready, make sure we've got the right formula, colostrum, teats, I'll put together a protocol to make sure that we are ready to go if mis-mothering happens. Tommy rang me at 7am to say she was about to give birth, because she was agitated and there was fluid coming out. So, when I got to work, I bolted down immediately, and I saw the placenta hanging out. When she gave birth, Tommy, Gemma and I just had the biggest smiles on our faces. That was something epic for me. I just was blown away by the experience. I hadn't been there for such a big animal. They’re so big and they're impressive.”

Like any job, there are highs and lows. Mikaylie explains busy clinical days where it’s just ‘flat chat’, her feelings of not achieving anything on those days, especially when she describes times when she’s been working 7am -midnight, and then what she’d put her heart into trying to save sadly doesn’t pull through.

“What I love about our team is the commitment, everyone really does whatever is needed. With our role, if it's needed, it HAS to happen. They're the hard days because you're exhausted, and sometimes it’s the emotional punch at the end, and you've got no choice. Well you have a choice, our choice is to be passionate, and to serve like this, help like this.”

What keeps Mikaylie going is the variety, purpose, and particularly, field work. She describes herself as dedicated, almost to a fault. Nearly every holiday taken over her spanning career has involved volunteering on field work, including a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo volunteering at a chimpanzee orphanage.

“We took young chimps into the forest to teach them how to climb trees, you'd be surprised that they don't actually know how to do that confidently. So, we would take them, and then sit in the trees and get them to climb up. We'd help them swing, and then they'd jump to us. But one of the main things was teaching the locals how to use contraceptives with the chimps, because they were breeding in an enclosure where you don't want them to breed. So, we were just showing them how you could hide it in their food, and by training them how to give individual doses. We also taught them a whole lot of different behavioural enrichment they can do with the chimpanzees. I can't relax, I just can't sit on a beach. To me, getting exposed to a new species, and see them in the wild and their natural habitat and to experience the whole thing. It’s the ultimate.”

Back at Auckland Zoo, Mikaylie has been taking part in conservation work for two of her ultimate loves – sea lions and kākāpō. Previous satellite tagging work with sea lions led to her involvement in a female tagging pilot project with the Department of Conservation (DOC), because they breath hold (giving them an ability to dive underwater for extended periods of time) they can be tricky to anesthetise, so experience is key. Just this past week, Mik has come off Te Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier Island) for kākāpō field work. You may have heard of the enigmatic, green, flightless, yet critically endangered bird, that even Sir David Attenborough has recently claimed to be his favourite New Zealand bird. ‘Talk about a loveable bird’, Sir David said. So, it’s really no wonder Mikaylie has given so much to this species.

With only 209 birds left, kākāpō are managed on off-shore islands, with each bird receiving regular health checks, transmitter changes, and blood tests – don’t even get started on breeding seasons! (Though we do have a whole documentary series on that!). It’s a mutually beneficial partnership, our veterinary and zoo skills help us share knowledge on how to restrain a bird, take blood samples, do a good blood smear, take swabs for various viruses, and best practice for storing these samples. The DOC rangers are extremely skilled in telemetry, and every trip Mik returns with refreshed and improved telemetry skills.

“I love kākāpō, but I also just love being in the bush, in the wild, and being actually able to be a part of this project means that I can actively contribute to something that really means something – I feel like I'm actually able to make a difference with the species and I get such reward out of this particular project because there's only 209 in the world.”

With less wild places in the world, we are crossing paths with far more wildlife than we ever have before. We are encroaching into their natural habitats, and equally we may feel like they are coming into ours – house spiders; kiwis in our backyards; seals on the harbour are just a few examples. And if granted one conservation-focused wish, Mikaylie hopes for a future where people were more educated and understanding of wild animals, and giving them their space. They can be dangerous, and equally we can be a danger to them.

“I got into conservation to be allowed to experience animals and their habitats appropriately, and with purpose. I’ve been in Costa Rica watching sea turtles on beaches, and living in houses where I can’t even speak the language. 55 degree heats in the Simpson Desert. Saving chimps in the most dangerous parts of Africa. But I put myself through it to have that experience and connection, and help rectify the positions these animals find themselves in. We’re gathering important data, research, and contributing towards a greater cause.”

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