With an architect for a dad, it was unsurprising that Toby’s career began in engineering, where he managed several million-dollar building projects. However, constantly thinking “how did I end up here?” led to a “major rethink” and resulted in Toby redirecting his focus to the study of zoology, majoring in marine biology, at The University of Auckland.
Nowadays, his career path has taken a slightly different tack.
“There’s a certificate in animal management (captive, wild animals), which is run by Unitec in Auckland – when it comes to exotic species, that is the qualification to have,” explains Toby.
“Within our native species, we have some of the weirdest animals in the world and that requires a lot of theoretical understanding. A degree path is much better for that.”
Toby believes study is essential to get a foothold in the industry, as it’s very competitive. “The best way to get into it is actually volunteering at a zoo or something similar while you’re studying. That way you can gain some experience and the staff can get to know and trust you. It’s like a very extended job interview.”
Looking back on his inspirations, Toby remembers a time when he was younger and windsurfing with a friend near Auckland. “There was a hammerhead shark beached in there, just about dead and it was enormous. But we defended the carcass against trophy hunters who wanted to come down and slice the fins, cut out the jaw and take all the bits away and it just made me realise how much I actually cared about wildlife.”
In answer to those who are scathing about keeping animals in captivity, Toby says that breeding programmes and conservation efforts have prevented extinction across many different species. And, he says, the animals are actually quite happy with their lot.
“The animals are completely oblivious to humans because they don’t register us as a predator. They just ignore us and accept us as part of the landscape … as long as you’re not going into part of their enclosure. Handling the animals from a young age means less stress for us and a whole lot less stress for them.”
A slight detour in his career, where he became a teacher at Riccarton High School in Christchurch for four years, meant that when the role as education manager for Orana Wildlife Park came up, Toby saw it as being made for him.
“It was beautiful because it was a combination of all the reasons I got into teaching in the first place, along with all the animal opportunities that I’d wanted in following that degree… and I’ve never looked back.”
That was 11 years ago. Now, cleaning enclosures, preparing food, taking records, feeding the animals and giving public presentations, which was all part of Toby’s zookeeping role, has given way to delivering formal education programmes to student groups visiting Orana Wildlife Park, amongst many other duties.
“My role also includes covering all the signs that go into the exhibit, the messages we deliver for conservation, the keepers’ presentations, publications that we develop here… it’s a very broad role.”
This position has meant that Toby’s focus has changed from marine life to working mainly with native species. “We use our exotic species to lure the public in and then we educate them about our natives,” he says.
The natives are not his only passion though. “The gibbons are my favourite at the moment. I’ve done a lot of work documenting them and it’s so rewarding when a family behaves as it should in the wild. They are one example where they have become so endangered that any births in the breeding programme become internationally significant. I love when we get babies!”
Travel is a great aspect of the job too. “I’ve visited most of the Australian zoos for training, animal transfers, exchanging knowledge and conferences… there’s good interaction between the zoos.” Although Toby’s travel hasn’t extended much further than Australia,
New Zealand’s closest neighbour offers a wealth of diverse and unique species – a bonanza for any animal enthusiast.
Of course, with any job there is also a downside. “Being bitten, being pooed on, being weed on, and especially when we lose an animal – that’s really tough. They don’t become pets, but we do become really, really fond of them.”
The loss of Harold the giraffe in 2012 was one of these times. “It was very sad for us all,” says Toby. “But I couldn’t be happier here. I’ve found where I belong and I don’t intend leaving any time soon.”
And who would complain, when you’re playing such a vital part in the great big circle of life and loving every minute of it?