IT takes plenty of blood, sweat and tears to run a successful zoo, especially one with an ambitious breeding program.
Running a privately owned zoo is all about playing with the primates, mucking around with meerkats and giving the giraffes a scratch behind the ear, right?
An emphatic wrong, say Greg and Yvonne Culell, who run Halls Gap Zoo, Victoria’s largest regional zoo, which holds species not found anywhere else in the state.
"People definitely romanticise our job. They think owning a zoo is all about cuddling fluffy animals," Greg says.
"But the best way I can describe zoo keeping is that you put it in one end and it comes out the other." Adds Yvonne:
"Sure cuddling is a part of it, but a minuscule part. These animals are not domesticated – they scratch," she says, pointing to a scar caused by an overly enthusiastic quoll.
"We’re well aware how unusual our job is, but when you live it – it’s the same as anything – it becomes your life."
For the Culells, the true joy of running the 20ha zoo that houses 160 different species or around 600 animals – and the initial reason they bought it back in 2007 – was the endangered species breeding program.
On first meeting Greg, he bounds into the office with unbridled energy – despite suffering a virus – all thanks to taking delivery of that morning’s most recent newcomers: 10 highly endangered orange bellied parrots.
Halls Gap Zoo may have the big ticket items – giraffes, servals (African wild cats), red pandas, and the cutest of their brood, pygmy marmosets – monkeys that can fit in the palm of your hand.
But for Greg and Yvonne, the passion is with the bilbies, stone-curlew, quoll, brush tailed bettongs, Tasmanian devils and Tammar wallabies, which are all under their care thanks to their involvement in more than 20 endangered species captive breeding programs.
"Everyone says they are green, then buy a Prius and do nothing. But here we are breeding bettongs. That for us is the driver. Our life will have meant something," Greg says.
He explains that no animals are ever traded or sold between zoos, but instead there is a system of sharing and breeding between (voluntary) members of the Zoo Association – all done with the aim of caring for each species.
Despite this good work, the couple say they still battle prejudice or negative perceptions about private, rural zoos. They say because of a few bad apples, the reputable zoos are tainted.
"We often get the public say they are hesitant to go to small wildlife parks in the country because of the bad ones,” Greg says. “But people walk out of here and go, ‘Wow we didn’t expect that in a regional zoo’. We hold the only pygmy marmosets in Victoria for instance."
So what does it take to run a private zoo to exacting standards? Halls Gap Zoo’s food bill costs $90,000 a year, with the menu including insects, special grain mixes and fruit and veg, most bought locally.
The Culells employ one part-time vet, who has access to a network of specialist knowledge in the Zoo Association, while all staff are trained to provide "enrichment" or mental stimulation to the animals, with the primates being the most needy (they are given toys and problem-solving tricks).
Greg says one of the major costs, however, is not food, but enclosures. The giraffe enclosure alone cost $150,000, while over the next nine months they’ll fork out $180,000 to replace and repair all bird aviaries.
In addition, the couple have not taken a wage since 2007, putting all money back in the business, nor had a holiday together since, with the exception of a week off recently – although even that was to a Queensland zoo conference.
Given their zeal and dedication to the zoo, it is a relatively new career choice for the couple. Greg, was a cabinet maker for 31 years, and Yvonne, who grew up on a rice and sheep farm, previously worked in a medical practice.
They married in 2007, the same year they bought the zoo.
"It was a bit tired and run-down and we could see it had a lot of promise. Others who’d seen it said it was too much work," says Greg.“But that is what life is. I want to wear out, not fade away.
If you keep trying the same old, same old, what have you achieved?"