Representing the interconnectedness of animal, human, and environmental health – conservation medicine is an important interdisciplinary field studying this relationship, that can have an impact on a national and global scale.

“While the Western viewpoint often sets human health apart from our wider environment, we believe that taking care of animals and nature cannot be separated from human health and wellbeing, and COVID19 is an example of what can happen if we don’t respect this interconnectedness,” says Dr. An Pas, Senior Zoo Veterinarian at Auckland Zoo.

Auckland Zoo’s New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM), was the first of its kind in the world, opened in 2007 by former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Here our veterinary team are able to contribute to crucial global databases through treating zoo animals and native wildlife, as well as undertake research that can both have an astounding impact nationally and globally.

Dr. Pas leads Auckland Zoo’s Veterinary Residency Programme, for qualified veterinarians to gain experience in conservation medicine and take on a research project that contributes to New Zealand native wildlife. This residency is open to New Zealand and Australian residents studying a Doctorate of Veterinary Medical Science at Murdoch University, with a new resident intake every three years.

A residency involves four days a week working as a veterinarian in Auckland Zoo’s Vet Hospital, and one day per week committed to a research project, with the aim of having a published paper post-residency. Past residents have made significant contributions to New Zealand conservation, publishing papers on diseases that affect the critically endangered Archey’s frog; psittacine beak and feather disease in kākāriki; mortality and prognostic indicators for stranded sea turtles; and pharmacological investigations of fungal treatments in tuatara.

Our latest Veterinary Resident, Dr. Stefan Saverimuttu, first studied veterinary medicine at the University of Sydney, before gaining five years’ experience in mixed practice clinics from New South Wales to the Northern Territory. His drive comes from a passion for conservation, science, and a love for animals. Before even leaving high school, Stefan was volunteering as a Zookeeper at Featherdale Wildlife Park which continued through his first degree until he left Sydney. When asked about a remarkable species he’s had the opportunity to work with, in true Aussie fashion, Stefan answers, “saltwater crocodiles”. Besides the exciting logistical challenges they present from a veterinary perspective, Stefan reminds us that as an animal a lot of people don’t have empathy for, they still feel pain and deserve the same opportunity for care.

What Stefan loves about being a zoo veterinarian? He explains there are two answers to that question – the first is being able to contribute to an organisation like Auckland Zoo that does so much for conservation, and on a personal level, he loves being challenged. Being able to contribute to an animal’s welfare, no matter how intricately difficult it is to run a general anaesthetic on a rhinoceros for instance, it’s both something that greatly benefits the rhino, but is also personally delivers a great sense of achievement.

“The whole reason I applied to vet school was to get involved in conservation, that has always been my entire drive. I loved animals, and had a real affinity for wildlife,” Stefan explains.

Stefan’s research project hones in on New Zealand’s endemic penguin species. The hoiho is one of the world’s rarest penguin species, and one that sparked concern for Stefan after ‘mass die-off’ events coincided with a mainland population decrease of 65% in the last 20 years.

Hoiho, more commonly known as the yellow-eyed penguin, and kororā (little penguin) face a similar range of threats, from predators; human disturbance; habitat and marine degradation; and disease. Current technologies are lacking in their capability to leverage data and look for broad trends – a problem described by Stefan as a ‘global issue’. In collaboration with Murdoch University, Massey University, and Auckland Zoo, Stefan is creating a computer program that can easily leverage modern databases to describe these trends and help conservationists understand the current and most imminent problems facing our native wildlife – starting with our endemic penguin species.

Zoo veterinary medicine is a field where a lot of calculated deductions are required. Keeping up to date with the latest published literature, and accessing a global database to understand and contribute to vital documentation are just a couple of ways zoos and zoo veterinarians play their part in conservation. Understanding how to treat, and prevent significant health concerns in patients at the zoo and from the wild is increasingly important for vulnerable species, and for the incredible welfare and preventative medicine that zoos are able to provide.

With zoo medicine, you can never know everything, or enough of anything – it’s a field that is ever-evolving, where it is necessary to be constantly learning and thinking outside-the-box for the wellbeing of your patients.

“The vast majority of it is centred around preventative medicine and trying to stop an animal getting sick, which is quite progressive and a fortunate situation to be in at Auckland Zoo. We've got a veterinary department that's resourced, and a culture in the zoo that values preventative animal care, and being able to catch a problem early on,” explains Stefan.

Being a Zoo Veterinarian involves dictating diagnostic and treatment plans; completing patient rounds; general anaesthetic procedures; documenting all aspects of animal treatment into a global database; and researching any emerging disease threats that may affect animals within the zoo, so between the vets and keeping teams it is something that is able to be recognised and dealt with quickly.

“Everything we do in the Vet Hospital is entered into a software used by a majority of zoos globally. Entered into this database are things like drug dose rates and also animal ages, so at a global scale so you can see patterns within that species which is a really useful resource if we end up having to use a medication not used before.”

“We can look at that data alongside any published literature, because when wildlife is so diverse, there's not always a publication for exactly what you want. It's a calculated risk. But you're using the best available evidence, and your own clinical judgment to make that call. Ultimately, if we don't treat if we've got an animal that's sick, that's even more risky,” Stefan explains.

Alongside the clinical setting, conservation activities are a huge drawcard of a residency at Auckland Zoo, especially for someone who explains their whole drive as a veterinarian is simply to conserve the planet and species that reside on it. For Stefan, more recently this has involved a trip to Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) to learn the ropes of island life for an upcoming kākāpō breeding season. There were cold, dark and early starts, often running off of caffeine, but that doesn’t phase a conservationist in the slightest when they are off to assist Department of Conservation (DOC) rangers in transmitter changes and health checks for an incredibly rare, critically endangered parrot. It’s not for the faint of heart – you pack up your bag with emergency clothing, a personal locator device, GPS, radio, first aid and telemetry equipment, then spend six, eight, sometimes ten hours in mountainous terrain, at times to track down just one bird! But this is all part of the fun, Stefan explains.

“The closer you are to the bird that you're looking for on a particular channel, if you're pointing the telemetry device in the right direction, the beeping noise gets louder. You're playing electronic hide and seek with critically endangered parrots, it's amazing,” Stefan says.

Stefan describes the terrain as tricky, especially when moving at pace, up and down tracks and mud slicks at 45-degree angles, and amongst the beautiful surroundings he found himself surprised that this was less of a Sunday tramp, and more of an action-filled, fast paced mission through the bush!

“Until you get an idea of what direction this bird is – because they're not going to be on the track, they're in the bush, the dense scrub – you’re climbing through supplejack trying to swing around a giant antenna and getting caught, it's all sorts of fun! Eventually you get close enough to a bird that everyone stops, and you start turning over rocks and looking down holes and up trees. Some of the birds are really cooperative, and at that point they start squawking at you, while other birds know the drill, they just sit there quite quietly and won't make a sound. Actually catching the birds is the tricky part, but the rangers are so skilled and have so many strategies to do this in a way that doesn’t harm or overly stress the bird – although it’s anything but, they make it look simple!”

The hoiho is one of the world’s rarest penguin species, and one that sparked concern for Stefan after ‘mass die-off’ events coincided with a mainland population decrease of 65% in the last 20 years.

Auckland Zoo

While the helicopter ride to the island provided an incredible perspective, one now etched in Stefan’s memory, the importance of learning how to navigate and negotiate this incredible, yet rugged landscape pre-breeding season cannot be underestimated. This particular skill even involves familiarising oneself with the complexities of understanding how the topography can affect the radio telemetry – the critical skillset of being able to actually track birds! Whilst Stefan was on the island he was also able to use his veterinary skills to assist the rangers with blood draws, which he describes as a tricky thing to do, and even-more-so magnified in the field. The big concern in kākāpō on Whenua Hou is cloacitis, more commonly known as ‘crusty bum’, so during the blood draw, all birds get a once over health check, a quick cloaca assessment, and a transmitter change.

“Just walking around the island, hearing kākā and kākāriki go off, and the little blue penguins chattering away at night – it was insane! Unbelievable!”

Along with kākāpō field work and regularly treating native wildlife in the Vet Hospital, Stefan has been incredibly lucky to also join field work as part of a kiwi muster on Motuora Island. When asked about what it is that he loves so much about field work, Stefan’s list is extensive.

“It's the different places. Being able to lend a vital skill set to conservation in practice. This is an island that people can't go to, unless they're there for a specific conservation purpose. It's got animals on there that aren't found anywhere else on the planet! It feels like what the entirety of New Zealand would have felt like, well I imagine centuries ago.”

Stefan has one more year left of his residency at Auckland Zoo, and has a lot to look forward to – a kākāpō breeding season, publishing his research, and completing his computer program which will help conservationists for years to come. Stefan credits Auckland Zoo’s Dr. An Pas and Dr. James Chatterton, as the leading force in why he will grow so much from this experience. The expertise and learning environment they can provide as European Board Zoo Health Management Specialists is unmatched. Combined with learning from experts in their field; the focus on preventative health care that gives exposure and insight to an incredibly diverse range of species; and the wider extremely skilled and experienced nursing and vet team, Stefan is increasingly finding himself in good stead to reach his own goals of one day also specialising as a Zoo Health Management Specialist.


A tremendous effort to save a tiny sea turtle

This juvenile loggerhead was recently found washed up on Ninety Mile Beach, dehydrated, covered in barnacles and in need of veterinary attention.

“All of that comes together to make this really unique and productive residency programme. On top of that, the relationship between Auckland Zoo and Murdoch University creates a really strong academic environment, because you've got James and An who have both published plenty, and you've got career academics at Murdoch University, that are prolific with their publications and in vital research, contributing to New Zealand conservation, and conservation globally. This ultimately takes me down the path of being a specialist in zoo medicine through health management. And part of that is being able to take the knowledge and things that you're learning in this ever-evolving field and being able to publish and disseminate that information, to keep the field moving forward,” Stefan says.

“It’s imperative that this research is able to contribute to conservation medicine through data collection and getting this research published so it’s of value to everyone. This research has a New Zealand focus, but it is broad enough to inspire and help conservation efforts worldwide,” explains Dr. An Pas.

Conservation medicine is gradually changing the outlook on how we view the interconnection of humans, animals and our immediate environment – the clash of urban sprawl and wild habitats, and everything in between. At Auckland Zoo we are proud to contribute regularly to essential research, that can make an impact here in Aotearoa, and more broadly to issues we share that reach into all pockets of planet Earth.