Some people live and breathe their profession, and are genuinely motivated to get out of bed in the morning to do the absolute best they can at their job. Auckland Zoo Vet Nurse, Breeze Buchanan is one of those exceptional people. For Breeze, nothing takes priority over patient care, making sure each patient is given the best opportunity to recover, and everything is in place to ensure their welfare is as high as possible.

“It’s really my patients that motivate me, and working with a really passionate team, because everyone is there because they want the best for the animals,” said Breeze.

From sustainable living practises, to taking every opportunity to become one with nature, and rescuing a dog that needed a home – the passion Breeze has for her work in a conservation organisation translates into all aspects of her life. Falling in love with a greyhound isn’t hard, especially for Breeze who spent a lot of time treating these sweet-natured pooches at Massey University teaching hospital during her student days. In knowing that she would adopt a dog when the right time came along, Breeze undertook some research into how many Greyhounds need homes after they retire from racing and chose to give five-year-old Lucha (formerly ‘Lunch Special’) a forever home.

“We had to teach him one paw at a time how to climb stairs. We put big ‘X’s all over our windows. He would stand at the mirror barking at himself, thinking it was another dog.”

Although that seems far from easy work, this loveable dog is now very much a (sleepy, goofy, and adorable) member of the family. When Breeze isn’t caring for her own pooch, most days you can find Breeze and the dedicated vet team racing around Auckland Zoo’s Vet Hospital, treating and caring for a huge array of inpatients - from wild animals, quarantined imports and exports, and our own zoo animal whānau. Recently, our patients included orange-fronted kakariki chicks requiring hand-rearing, a coastal bearded dragon with a prolapsed cloaca, and a Tasmanian devil seeing out her 30-day quarantine.

For anyone interested in exploring the vet nursing career, day-to-day life in the hospital involves morning checks on patients, preparing and administering medications and treatments, feeds, lab-work (looking at faecal and blood samples under a microscope), surgical procedures, hand-rearing chicks, cleaning, and disinfecting. And the whole day’s plan can quickly need rearranging when a wild patient (anything from native birds, to injured seals, and washed-up sea turtles) is brought in, or a zoo animal is suddenly very unwell requiring urgent attention.

It’s really no surprise that Breeze ended up in this particular profession – growing up on a lifestyle block on the Coromandel Peninsula, surrounded by beautiful native bush, with both parents also working in conservation! Through her positive influences, from a young age, Breeze would go along to the (formerly named) Thames Coast Protection Society meetings and get in involved in their conservation projects alongside her parents. Not-to-mention, she had pets galore! Pet chickens (that were so well trained they would perch on her shoulder), budgies, ducks, and at the ripe age of 12 Breeze’s father caved in to letting her get a horse (only if she bought it herself and paid the upkeep!). As an ex-harness racer, Johnny the horse had to get used to the leisurely lifestyle block way of life.

“The first time we walked him through pine forest or over streams we had to bribe him, I had dad walking in front of me with a carrot, but once he got the hang of it, he was great. He was hilarious at the beach when he first saw the waves. He would go up to the water sniff it, and paw the water, but he absolutely grew to love it!”

It’s really my patients that motivate me, and working with a really passionate team, because everyone is there because they want the best for the animals

Breeze Buchanan, Auckland Zoo veterinary nurse

Never shy of a hard day’s work, Breeze was 13 when she decided she wanted to be a vet. Off to the local clinic she went, to ask if she could volunteer. They gave her a job as a kennel hand, and that was that. Every day after school she worked there, beginning with cleaning cages, and gradually moving into reception and animal handling. She was one of the lucky ones (though really through drive, ambition and hard work), that by the age of 17 she had fine-tuned that dream into becoming a vet nurse, knowing - exactly - what she wanted to do for the rest of her life by the time she left school.

“Although surgery and diagnostics fascinated me, it’s something I didn’t want to perform myself. Patient care, comfort, and welfare was where I wanted to focus my energy.”

After completing a Diploma of Vet Nursing at Massey University, and getting a huge breadth of experience with both large animal work, wildlife, and general practice, Breeze knew she wanted to direct her career to focussing on wildlife, and although zoo work was a bit of a dream, to her it seemed so unattainable. Little did she know at the time, a variety and wealth of experience was key. After her studies she spent three years at Beach Vets in Waihi, a week doing work experience at Auckland Zoo (ascertaining that zoo work was the ultimate goal), three years in the middle of the Australian desert at a mixed animal practice, and back to New Zealand for a job in Auckland’s Animal Emergency Centre.

“Zoo medicine is so varied that all the different experiences really put me in good stead, giving me a good base in general practice alongside mixed animal practice, and also exotics. Emergency experience has been really useful for zoo nursing as well, because I often feel like things happen really quickly here. If animals get sick and rushed up to hospital, I feel like my emergency instincts are always going to be with me and help me keep a level head.”

When asked about her zoo nursing highlights, Breeze exclaimed ‘but there are so many!’ but was able to single out rhino dental procedures as being one of the more fascinating. Just to be up-close to such an incredibly large animal she described as ‘surreal'.

“Their anatomy is fascinating, the size of their teeth, and all the equipment we had to order in to make it possible. These anaesthetic procedures are such a logistical challenge too, we have a team on stand-by that is there for sheer muscle power to move these animals because they are so big. It’s a huge part of our job to make sure we’ve thought of every little single aspect, because imagine if you were down there and anaesthetised one, and then didn’t have enough people to move them into position. It’s a lot of planning but I really enjoy being detail-oriented and helping to prepare for every scenario.”

Other than patient welfare, conservation is the other thing Breeze lives and breathes so intently. Her eyes light up when talking about her six weeks on off-shore islands hand-rearing kākāpo - one of New Zealand’s most critically endangered parrots. But the broken sleep patterns, trying conditions, and physicality of fieldwork aren’t enough to put her off – in-fact it probably draws her to it even more!


Kaitiaki for Kākāpō - Part 2

Conservationists join together to treat kākāpō chicks falling ill from the fungal disease aspergillosis

“I loved hand-rearing chicks, but perhaps the most rewarding part was actually going out and putting a chick under a foster ‘mum’. There are tents set up next to nests with live-feeds of the nests, so you’d head to these tents and wait for the foster mother to leave, to be able to return a chick to its nest. Then you’d race back to the tent, and watch and wait like an anxious parent, waiting for the ‘mum’ to return, and see what she would do with the chick and if she’d actually feed it. When the chick gets its first feed from the foster mum that is the best feeling ever!”

Ever ambitious, heading to Africa and volunteering in a vet nurse capacity is something Breeze would love the opportunity to do. She excitedly rattles off a list of Auckland Zoo’s conservation partners she can only dream of volunteering for - Giraffe Conservation Foundation, or Cheetah Outreach to name a few – but equally, being involved in conservation projects on home soil are of huge importance. She speaks fondly of her times on Motutapu Island vaccinating takahē chicks and undertaking their health checks; the kiwi musters on creche islands (predator-free sanctuaries where kiwi live until they are 1.2kg as part of Operation Nest Egg) and then releasing the kiwi back to the sites where they originated from; sea turtle rehabilitation and releases – all these things hold an incredibly special place in Breeze’s heart.

Despite all the exciting, rewarding days, vet nursing is not without its challenges. There’s a sad side to veterinary nursing – you will lose patients, and it takes an emotional toll. You are also working with wild animals that generally aren’t used to people, and don’t like to be touched, so it can also be about getting creative with ways to minimise their stress and ensure optimum welfare.

“With zoo veterinary medicine, you will never know enough of everything for every species, that makes it challenging but that’s also the beauty of it! There’s always more to learn and improve on. And it makes it incredibly rewarding because there’s so much we can learn from our patients, and so much we can contribute to research.”

With role models like her parents, who she holds in high regard along with the likes of David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, Breeze believes with such great influences she probably wouldn’t have ended up anywhere else. One particular influence (Attenborough) opened her eyes to just how incredibly diverse the species on this planet are, and he is simply put, a ‘wise, wise man’, whilst Jane’s life in general simply fascinates her. With role models like these, when asked the question ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years’ the following response is almost expected.

“Oh wow, right where I am, I cannot imagine doing anything else! My job is such a perfect balance, and I am so incredibly privileged to work in conservation and feel like I’m really making a difference.”

According to Breeze, conservation can be so easy. Some things are so simple to do – composting for instance. It’s such an easy change that makes an actual, tangible difference to the planet and lowering methane production, compared to the methane that would be produced if organic matter breaks down in the landfill. To Breeze, even conserving forests can begin by simply taking a bush walk.

“I just encourage people to get out there and experience it. Once people have spent time in our beautiful native forest, I’d like to think it makes people appreciate it so much more and want to care for it. Set some predator/pest traps, join a community group. If you don’t experience it, you don’t know how special this thing is that you’re trying to protect.”