The Senior Lead Keeper of Auckland Zoo’s Carnivores Team, Nick Parashchak, takes Oliver Hall on a tour of the zoo, discussing tattoos, conservation innovation and life and death along the way.

The otters look cute enough to cuddle when Nick and I stop by their habitats as he gives me a tour of Auckland Zoo.

“The cuter they are, the harder they bite,” he tells me while assuring me that in his 16 years as a zookeeper, he has never had any significant injuries.


“We’re really safety conscious, especially with our big cats, where we run a two-person system. We’re never in the same space as one,” he explains before divulging, “I have had the odd Tasmanian Devil bite the end of my boot before… They have the sharpest teeth!

As we look down at an adorable Devil, Nick explains that they have an average life span of just five years and goes on to describe their mating habits, which sounds like something out of a slasher movie.

“You respect the animal, so you work around them in a way that you are safe,” he explains, showing me his bite-free arms that feature the faces of some of the most significant animals he has cared for.

Most zookeepers tend to have a tattoo of an animal that they’ve worked with. It’s uncommon to not have one. This is my Africa arm,” he explains, showing off illustrations of a lion, elephant and giraffe that he worked with in the UK and two cheetahs he still cares for at Auckland Zoo.

His Journey To Auckland Zoo

Nick grew up in the UK and tells us he has always wanted to work with animals. “But I hadn’t realised that Zoology was a degree that people could do. People just told me that all I’d be doing was shovelling poo for the rest of my life. But far from it, that’s probably the smallest part of my day now,” he explains.

Nick studied Zoology in Liverpool and thinks many would be surprised by what the degree entails. “A lot of people don’t realise how scientific it is. There’s a lot of statistics. You study the morphology of how animals move, react, and how their bodies are designed for certain aspects of their life – plus ecology and the natural spaces they live in, how and why they live there, food sources and their symbiotic relationships with other animals.”

“I specialised in primate social structures – because they’re such unique, intelligent creatures. Some are smarter than us!”

After his degree, Nick went to America for a three-month internship at a rehabilitation centre before returning to the UK and gaining a position at Knowsley Safari Park. “Day one, having never worked in a proper zoo, I was looking after 24 lions,” he exclaims.

In addition, he took care of Siberian tigers, Iberian wolves and African wild dogs. “Basically, everything that wants to bite you and not let go,” he laughs.

He applied for his job at Auckland Zoo when backpacking in Australia. “I didn’t really like travelling too much. I was 28 and too old to be going out partying every night with 19-year-olds.”

Senior Lead Keeper at Auckland Zoo’s Carnivore Team

Partying every night is a thing of the past for Nick, who now enjoys busy days and early starts.

“A lot of our day is spent doing our health checks on our animals. We handle daily medications and vaccinations,” he tells me as we stand outside the tiger habitat.

Wild cats don’t like to be looked down on, so they are housed in raised gardens where they are above the public. Impressive aerial pathways have also been created to allow the tigers to walk above their onlookers to their other enclosure.

“We’re always looking to improve their habitats for their behavioural enrichment,” Nick tells us, explaining, “We look at what tools they use, how they eat, how we can make things that will use their natural behaviours to get the most out of their habitat. You want your animals to be doing what they naturally would do in the wild.”

He says that observing the animals is a big part of a keeper’s job. “You spend a lot of time watching what your animals do and working out – why it is doing that? Especially with social carnivores, where dynamics are constantly changing. You need to be aware of why things are happening. Why an animal might be by itself or choosing to be in that corner.”

If animals begin to exhibit new or unusual behaviours, contacting other zoos to see if they have had similar issues can be a go-to for keepers like Nick. Auckland Zoo is part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, linking them to over 300 other organisations across 41 countries. As Nick puts it, “We are one big giant zoological family.”

A Day In The Life

Auckland Zoo isn’t Nick’s only employer, however. His two jobs work symbiotically – giving him an ideal life balance.

“We start from seven in the morning to give our animals the longest day possible. I work till 3:30, and we have a staff member every day who does till 5:30 to extend the day longer for animals like otters and meerkats who require multiple feeds because they have such high metabolisms.”

After clocking off at the zoo, Nick heads to Les Mills Gym to teach group fitness classes.

“I’ve been teaching group fitness classes for about 12 years now. My brother got me to start attending classes in my early twenties. The gym had always been a horrible place for me as a chubby gay kid. I didn’t like doing weights with the big macho people. With the group fitness, I could hide in the corner. I didn’t feel on display. That gave me such a massive confidence boost, and I loved it. I started going every day, and one of the instructors asked, ‘Have you ever thought about teaching?”

Nick refers to himself as an introverted extrovert, explaining: “I don’t usually like to be in big groups, but put me on stage to teach a class to 150 people, and I’m fine. It’s like this other hat I can put on, kind of like drag!”

“I teach Body Pump, Body Attack and Body Combat. It’s my therapeutic release. If I have a bad day or I’m just not feeling great, I get to class, put music on, put on my little headset and, have my Britney moment and just get into another zone!

“I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve actually got to do some of Les Mills’ masterclass filming, which is shown around the world!”

Nick thinks that group fitness is an important complement to his work at Auckland Zoo. “You need to be quite physically fit at the Zoo. We are walking constantly and lifting a lot of heavy stuff, so my training really helps with that.”

Photo | Priscilla Northe

Wild Heroes:

You don’t have to find a Les Mills masterclass to see Nick on your screens.

Nick stars in Auckland Zoo’s brilliant TV show, Wild Heroes, which is streaming on Three Now. The show follows the journeys of different keepers with their animals, including Nick’s work with Sumatran Tigers, Ramah and Zayana, who were brought together as part of an international breeding program for this critically endangered breed.

Over its two seasons, Wild Heroes has covered the arrival of the tigers, their habitat design, the intricacies of their mating ritual, Zayana’s pregnancy and the eventual birth.

“The show is an awesome way for people to get to see behind the scenes and understand what goes into these international breeding programs,” Nick tells us.

Wild Heroes also highlights how Auckland Zoo contributes to many conservation projects in New Zealand by rehabilitating and housing endangered species.

“There are some incredible highs and lows,” agrees Nick, who is involved in one of the series’ most emotional stories.

“We work with our animals every day, and they become our family. When you have bad moments, they are really bad. But on the flip side, you also have these moments like two tigers arriving on November 22 from America and today having one of the rarest tigers born here at the zoo.”

After announcing the birth of a pair of tiger cub twins at the beginning of January, just four weeks later, Auckland Zoo issued a statement advising that the male cub had had to be euthanised after taking a tumble while exploring his habitat.

“It was devastating for the whole Carnivore Team,” Nick tells us solemnly. “We just had to keep going because we still have animals to look after.”

The team weren’t the only ones grieving. “Once the cub had been removed, then Zayana did call for him as she would do in the wild,” explains Nick. “Animals definitely do grieve. You see it in them.”

The incident highlights the hardest part of a zookeeper’s job, which also keeps Auckland Zoo’s teams tightly bonded.

“Our Carnivore Team is incredible. We talk through everything together, so any decisions that are made are never made by just one person. Even people that weren’t directly involved with tigers were in discussions, so no matter your role, you felt like they were part of it.”

The death of an animal is sadly an inevitable part of a zookeeper’s job.

“Most animals either arrive here when they’re young, or they’re born here. So for most of the animals that I’m working with now, they’ve known me their entire lives,” Nick tells us.

It makes me think back to the Tasmanian Devil Nick introduced me to at the beginning of our tour and reminds me that its lifespan equates to less than a third of Nick’s career so far.

“Yeah, I’ve worked with a lot of devils in my time,” he confirms with a smile, recalling his many fond memories of animals past and his exciting hopes for their new generations.

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