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Critical work by passionate zoo staff helping to keep kākāpō alive

Published: 6 August 2019

An unprecedented kākāpō breeding season is great news for Auckland Zoo staff, but there’s no time to celebrate.

For the past few months, zoo veterinarian Dr Melanie Leech and her colleagues have been working overtime to save the critically endangered New Zealand treasure from the fungal infection aspergillosis.

Since April this year, 44 of the nocturnal flightless parrot have been uplifted from their home on Whenua Hou near Rakiura/Stewart Island and taken to vet hospitals throughout the country.

At the height of the crisis, 19 kākāpō (adults and chicks) ended up at Auckland Zoo’s Vet Hospital where they required strict quarantine and around-the-clock assessment, care and monitoring.

“We’ve certainly had our hands full, and there have been many sleepless nights," Melanie says.

"On a positive note, we’ve been able to send some birds home, and now have 10 birds in our care."

The ultimate goal is to ensure kākāpō stay healthy and continue to breed. With only 142 adult kākāpō and 72 chicks left in the world, it’s crucial every effort is made to increase the bird’s population.

It’s been a bumper 'double-clutching' breeding season for kākāpō, where the birds can nest twice in one season.

With all of the birds in the zoo’s care now showing some improvement and a number on track to return home within the next two months, Melanie is feeling confident that her and her colleagues are on the right track.

“We’re really proud to be able to help this precious species.”

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Getting to know... zoo veterinarian Doctor Melaine Leech

How long have you worked at the zoo?

I have been working at Auckland Zoo for four years, but I’ve been a vet for 10 years. I’ve previously worked in a private exotics vet practice in Auckland, and mixed practice in the Waikato.

When did you first know you wanted to be a vet?

It was when I was very young and visited Auckland Zoo actually. My parents bought me a little zebra toy in the gift shop because, apparently, that was the day I decided I wanted to be a zebra vet! I was too young to even remember this, but I still have the little zebra toy.

How do you prefer to start your day?

I start my workdays with a nearly hour-long commute into work whilst drinking a big cup of herbal tea.

What personal or professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

Definitely completing my Masters in Veterinary Studies in Conservation Medicine, and then going on to get a job at Auckland Zoo.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

The most challenging aspect of my work is the huge variety of species that we work with at the zoo – anything from a baby Chesterfield skink weighing less than 1 gram to a 3-tonne elephant! But this is also the reason why my job is so interesting and enjoyable. One day is never the same as another.

What was your first pet? Name?

I had a variety of family pets growing up, but my first pet was a very handsome bunny named Tasman who was my little companion throughout vet school.

What would we most likely find you doing on the weekend?

At-the-moment, anything and everything wedding related – I’m getting married soon.

Where is your favourite place to visit in Auckland?

Tiritiri Matangi island – an absolute wildlife oasis right on our doorstep.

What would your autobiography be called?

Powered by Herbalife, Starbucks, and a passion for wildlife conservation!

What’s something you’ve done, but will never do again?

Buying water in a single-use plastic bottle!

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

I’m a huge Disney and Star Wars fan.

What are three things still left on your bucket list?

Lots and lots more travelling. I have never been to Africa so that is top of my list.

If you could trade places with anyone for a day, who would you choose?

Definitely one of my very loved and very pampered cats.

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