30 Aug 2016

Zookeeper hailed as Nelson hero

9:47 am on 30 August 2016

An American zoologist Meg Rutledge, who with her husband Mike Rutledge took over Nelson's Natureland zoo three years ago, has been named the city's change maker in the annual Eelco Boswijk local heroes awards.

Meg Rutledge has been given the Nelson change-maker award.

Meg Rutledge has been given the Nelson change-maker award. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

The change maker award recognises environmental innovation, and was among a variety given out by the city council to Nelsonians.

The Rutledges rescued the council-owned zoo from the brink of extinction when they arrived in the region in 2013. It was the realisation of a dream for Mrs Rutledge who grew up in the richly diverse Florida Everglades, and for Mr Rutledge who grew up on a Redwood Valley orchard in the Tasman District. He was happy to return home from Auckland and a marketing career.

Natureland zoo has been a Nelson institution for decades but several years ago a council plan to close it caused widespread outrage in the community. There were public marches and protesters stormed the council chamber at a meeting to decide the zoo's fate. The Orana Wildlife Trust then stepped in with a plan to extend its operations using Natureland.

However, the Christchurch earthquakes ended those plans when the trust was forced to re-group. Natureland was once more on the brink, until the Rutledges arrived late in the piece after the council called for expressions of interest from the public.

Their bid was successful and they took over the Natureland Wildlife Trust under a new lease arrangement with the council for the land Natureland occupies.

From its early days as something akin to a "petting zoo", run by loyal and hard-working volunteers, it has morphed into an immaculate mini zoo with native tree plantings, tidy post and rail fences, which are home to lamas and Himalayan yaks. Peacocks wander freely, turtles swim lazily in their enclosure, but the keynotes to this zoo are the birds.

Meg Rutledge with a kakariki at Natureland.

Meg Rutledge with a kakariki at Natureland. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

A newly opened Conservation Corner has an egg incubation chamber and purpose-built aviaries, one of which house three South Island Kaka forming the basis of a special breeding programme.

"They were born in December and they came to us in early January, but they are all boys so we have a little bit of work to do before the breeding can begin. For now they get to be a flock of naughty bachelors," Mrs Rutledge said.

Mrs Rutledge's ideas and her success in forming partnerships with other local conservation organisations helped earn her the award. Natureland has forged links with Project Janzoon - a private trust which is tackling an ambitious native bird restoration project in the Abel Tasman National Park. Natureland also aims to work with The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, a community-based project building a pest-free wildlife reserve close to the Nelson city centre.

"We've decided all the breed-for-release projects we want to get involved with are ones that are relevant to conservation programmes in the Nelson-Tasman area," she said.

Mrs Rutledge believed that Natureland's roles were indicative of the approach modern zoos were taking.

A Himalayan Yak eats lunch at Naturalnd in Nelson.

Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

"It is an area where zoos can really contribute and time and again made a huge impact with the number of species (saved) but I think it's critically important to always ask, 'how are we doing and what can we do better along the way'."

She said zoos still suffered a public image problem, but more were striving for the positive end of the spectrum. Mrs Rutledge also credited the innovative work being done in New Zealand, which she said was exemplary around the world.

"We're asking those hard questions about the animals in our collection - why are they there and what is the purpose and goal. Recreation is no longer the answer."

Mrs Rutledge has a background in wildlife rehabilitation and animal care, and has studied at Florida Atlantic University, Yale University and Auckland University on a scholarship. She has worked in different exotic locations around the world, including Madagascar, where she did research on one of her favourite animals, the lemur, during her Masters studies at Yale.

Mrs Rutledge, who is the new chair of the New Zealand National Zoo and Aquarium Association, said the long-held dream of one day owning her own zoo had turned out better than expected.

"You have your good days and your bad days, but overall it's been amazing."