Zookeeper Devon Nicholls (27), a “fully-fledged bird nerd” and an essential worker at Auckland Zoo during New Zealand’s Covid-19 Alert Level 4 response, is finding life under lockdown, both at work and home, has its challenges, but is very chirpy about the silver linings…

Before you take us into lockdown, can you tell why and how you came to work at Auckland Zoo?

For as young as I can remember, I had a love and fascination for animals, being in nature, and conservation. As a kid I was always searching through rockpools and bird spotting and watched Animal Planet religiously. I had cats, guinea pigs, and budgies growing up and would regularly turn our backyard into a zoo with my soft toys, geographically sorting them into enclosures, and giving them shelter and food - using my mum’s baking dishes as water trays and pools, which I’m not sure she was so happy about! My closest bit of nature was Maungawhau (Mt Eden) – a place I still love. I also loved the beach and being out on the water, which in Auckland we’re so lucky to be surrounded by, and it’s still my zen place.

Growing up, Auckland Zoo was my local. I watched The Zoo show and idolised the keepers and their passion for wildlife and conservation, and it was always my dream to work here. Following a science degree, in 2012, I started as a volunteer guide and then as assistant keeper. After studying for the Captive Wild Animal Management certificate in 2014, I was lucky enough to get causal work on the Birds section. As a casual keeper, I also spent some time on the Carnivore and Primate sections, but then I got a permanent role on the Birds section in 2016 – and now I’m a fully-fledged bird nerd! Plus, I have the pleasure of working with some of those keepers I absolutely idolised as a kid.

How did you feel when the Level 4 lockdown was announced?

Everything seemed to happen so quickly, it really threw a spanner in the works, but at the same time I could see it coming.  My day-to-day life is very busy, so the last few weeks have been very out of the norm for me as travel, social events and sports were all cancelled.  But the lockdown was the sensible next step, and it’s been nice to take a breath and evaluate a few things.

What’s changed for you and your Bird team colleagues?

My team has now split into two. We work four days, then have four days off, as well as doing paperwork – this way we don’t cross over.  Within this we’re split further into three geographically separate mini teams to limit the people we see and the surfaces we’re exposed to. We’re practicing social distancing and have disinfectant and hand sanitiser everywhere!

What do you miss at work that’s not possible under lockdown? 

I’m really missing my colleagues. Unfortunately we had an intern that had to head home to the UK early, and we have another team member now working from home and about to go on maternity leave, and we haven’t been able to have a proper farewell for either of them.  Luckily the number of small staff I do get to see in a day aren’t driving me crazy just yet!

I also miss the Wild Work we’d normally be doing – being out in the field and helping some of New Zealand’s most endangered native bird species. I was due to spend a week out on Motutapu Island here in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf with colleagues, helping perform health checks on the takahē population and banding and vaccinating this season’s juveniles, which needed to be postponed. Hopefully we’ll be able to do this in the not too distance future.


Six pāteke ducklings have just hatched at Auckland Zoo!

Does the Zoo feel strange without visitors?

Yes! It’s very different not being able to share our amazing animals and have those special up-close interactions with the public right now. It’s lovely getting people excited about our native animals and hearing everyone’s stories.  But, it’s awesome that in this day and age we have social media – so visitors aren’t missing out completely. Our Marketing and Communications team, with everyone’s support, are really going all out to bring the Zoo to the community online so everyone can continue to stay connected and still experience our incredible wildlife from the safety of their bubbles at home. As keepers, we’re also helping by filming little videos on our phones.

In the first few days of lockdown we did notice that some of the birds in our big walkthrough aviaries seemed a little confused as to where all the people were, but we’ve been doing lots of different things to keep them occupied, and making the most of their very inquisitive natures – like our kea, kākā and kererū – and they’re all doing great.

As an Easter treat, we made some fun papier mâché eggs for our kea to explore. We painted them with non-toxic edible paint, used grass as a filler and popped a few special little treats inside like peanuts and fruit chunks, which they just loved!  

What do you love about coming to work?

I think coming to work is helping keep me sane. My bubble is so small, so it’s great to be able to get out and be productive.

I’m really loving how everyone here has taken this situation in their stride and is working super hard to care for our animals and keep all the essential operational side of things running – which of course supports what we keepers do.

Plus, I’m still getting to see and care for my most favourite animal in the world – the kea! We have four males here (Nauhea, Rob Roy, Tohu and Tapui) and they all have such different personalities. I’ve had the privilege of working closely with them for a while now, so I know them really well. Kea are so incredibly intelligent, but also complete goof balls, and they constantly keep us on our toes, and make us laugh.

Anything different you’re doing that you wouldn’t normally get to do?

There are some jobs we now have the flexibility to do at any time of the day- like water-blasting, a pleasure of mine, and cleaning the penguin pool. I’ve also started doing the Massey University and UC Davis (University of California at Davis) Foundations of Oiled Wildlife Response online course, which is a great opportunity to upskill. Hopefully I will never need to use my newly acquired skills, but it’s a great feeling to know I’ll be capable of putting my training and aviculture skills to use to help save wildlife in an environmental disaster.

What’s your ‘new normal’ like at home?

I’ve got two flatmates but one of them has gone home to the Hawkes Bay to be with family for the lockdown. My other flatmate is also an essential worker, so we’re both working a little from home, and then ‘in our offices’ the other days. We’re doing lots of baking which has been nice.  I recommend Chelsea Sugar’s great choc chip cookie recipe – makes plenty of cookies and you can even make some and save the rest for another time! We’re also making good use of the end of summer vegetable garden.

Shopping-wise, we’ve gone with one of the food packages companies, so each week we get a great box of goodies delivered. It’s saving trips to the supermarket, and I’m trying things I might not usually cook.


Zoo Tales - Cheeky and charming kea

Activities and entertainment?

I’m really missing my weekly sports – indoor and outdoor netball and ultimate frisbee, but I’ve started to get back into yoga and I’m enjoying discovering new parts of my neighbourhood on my walks. I’m always one for puzzles and I’ve been trying to learn cryptic crosswords, so that’s getting a bit of my time too. I thought I might dust off my paints or pencils soon and get back to a bit of sketching as well. 

How are you staying connected with your family and friends?

My sister lives just a few minutes around the corner from me, and the rest of my immediate and extended family are in Auckland, so we’re all keeping in touch over the phone and social media. Friday nights my friends and I have virtual drinks – it’s a great way to stay connected and have a laugh.

What’s something we can all do while in our bubbles to help wildlife and our environment?

A fun thing to do is make shelters for lizards to invite them into our garden. Making stacks of rocks, or using wood, bricks, old concrete or roof tiles will make good hidey holes for insects that lizards love to nibble on.  If these are placed in sunny spots, they’ll also make great basking spots.  You can find some more good information here.

Top tip at this unprecedented time?

Look for the silver linings, no matter how small. It’s nice to appreciate the little things at times like this.