Chye-Mei Huang is a Keeper at Wellington Zoo.
What do you do on an average work day?
A zookeeper is never bored, and always busy! A typical work day for a keeper involves any or all of the following:
Observation of animal behaviour, visual and physical health checks of animals, cleaning, enrichment (keeping your animals physically and mentally stimulated), feeding and diet prep, enclosure maintenance and design, containment checks, vet procedures, administration of medical treatments, record keeping, animal introductions, reading and research, studbook keeping, training and conditioning of animals to create positive welfare and management strategies, conservation work in the field, community engagement, education (including training students and new keepers) and lots of visitor engagement (including talks and presentations).
There is always something to learn, and always some new challenge that the animals throw at you!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
Biology is a must, and Statistics also came in handy. After high school I completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury. I took papers in Animal Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, Anatomy and Physiology, Genetics, and Evolution. I also took Statistics papers, as people in my role often have to do a bit of research or fieldwork involving basic data analysis. On completion of my degree I went on to do Auckland UNITEC’s Certificate in Animal Management (Captive Wild Animals), which included a nine month work experience placement at Hamilton Zoo.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Definitely! Doing a BSc first gave me a really good understanding of the wider theory of conservation, ecology, animal behaviour, anatomy and physiology, evolution and genetics, all of which underpin many facets of my job. The UNITEC CAM course was indispensable in teaching me the basic theoretical and practical skills needed to be a zoo keeper and is highly desired by potential employers of any would-be zookeeper in NZ.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Above and beyond anything else, choose a career path that you’re passionate about and that makes you happy. It is your love and passion for the job that will push you through any challenge thrown at you, help you grow as a person, and drive you to make a positive difference in your chosen field. Also, don’t be afraid to try different things to find what you like! Many of the best keepers I know started out somewhere completely different, and it took the courage of career change for them to find a niche they truly love.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
- One of them has to be gaining a full-time permanent keeper position at Wellington Zoo. The zoo industry is fiercely competitive, and to earn a place at such a reputable zoo that does so much for conservation was an amazing moment.
- Helping breed North Island Kākā for release into the wild. Being involved in the husbandry of three of the 20 Kākā chicks Wellington Zoo has seen released all over the North Island was such a buzz. It was awesome to know that we were contributing directly to the conservation of an endangered species by boosting population numbers.
- Working with critically endangered Grand and Otago skinks. We hold an insurance population of Grand and Otago skinks at Wellington Zoo. These animals were rescued from the wild as the population is in serious decline, with the aim of breeding them for release. It is such a privilege to be working to help save such precious reptiles, and I love educating our visitors about their plight.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
The world is changing faster than we could possibly have imagined, and with these changes come new challenges, some especially unique to New Zealand. STEM plays such a huge role in providing innovative, sustainable advances across a myriad of fields – biosecurity, health and medicine, climate change, energy and conservation, to name but a few. It is a rapidly growing field that is becoming more and more relevant to New Zealanders, and our participation and understanding is needed so that we can continue to meet these challenges and make a positive difference in the world.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I am lucky enough to work in a field where women are now very well represented – until recently zoo keeping was a very male-dominated career. I am aware that in many areas across STEM, women are under-represented. This is disappointing. I am privileged to work with so many highly experienced, intelligent, skilled women – from keepers, to vets, to rangers, to scientists and more – and see first-hand the tremendous contribution they make to STEM on a daily basis. It is so important that we continue to facilitate the recruitment of women into STEM, because, quite literally, women in STEM are changing the world.
Chye-Mei Huang is a Keeper at Wellington Zoo.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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