On the side of wildlife

Lisa Argilla has transformed her childhood passion for wildlife into a rewarding career. As Jacqui Gibson learns, she now has ambitious plans for the future

Royal Albatross, Otago, New Zealand (image care of the Royal Albatross Centre).

Royal Albatross, Otago, New Zealand (image care of the Royal Albatross Centre).


She spent two months in the limelight nursing a critically injured emperor penguin named Happy Feet while the world looked on. Barely a fortnight after the bird’s release, Happy Feet was reportedly dead, possibly taken by a shark.

Right now she’s hand-rearing newly hatched kākāpō in Southland until the young birds are more robust.

All going well the entire brood of rare forest parrots will survive long enough to return to the wild and eventually have offspring of their own.

But an outcome like that is never certain.

Caring for wildlife is a high-stakes and often high-profile vocation.

Lisa Argilla – former veterinary sciences manager at Wellington Zoo, now wildlife consultant – should know.

She was the veterinarian who removed stones and sand from Happy Feet’s stomach after he washed up on a Kāpiti Coast beach almost 5,000 kilometres north of Antarctica, back in the winter of 2011.

It was Argilla who became the go-to spokesperson for media stories on Happy Feet’s progress.

And it was Argilla who released him fully recovered back into the Southern Ocean from the rear of a NIWA research ship a few months later.

In March this year Argilla spent a month working on the conservation sanctuaries of Codfish and Anchor Islands, providing veterinary support to breeding kākāpō for Kākāpō Recovery.

Her work in Southland, also for Kākāpō Recovery, will continue through June.

Lisa at work (image care of Lisa Argilla).

Lisa at work (image care of Lisa Argilla).

Originally from South Africa, she’s all too familiar with the ups and downs of working with New Zealand wildlife.

“It’s amazing work. I love it, particularly the work I’m doing with kākāpō right now. They’ve got a special place in my heart, these unique parrots – and it’s amazing to be part of the team committed to increasing their numbers.

“But they’re wild birds. They can die from natural causes or disasters, despite what you might do for them. You have to accept that it’s a natural part of life.

“Saying that, I don’t share the view that Happy Feet died. The transmitter was just superglued to his feathers and he more than likely preened it off. I’m a firm believer [that] he’s enjoying life as a free penguin!”

A practice-based veterinarian for just 14 months of her nine-year career, Argilla says she was always keen to work with wildlife.

She just wasn’t sure how to make it a full-time gig.

As a kid growing up, she spent practically every waking moment watching and interacting with her favourite breed of local wildlife – birds.

One of her earliest memories is nicking a wild pigeon, aged five, and taking it home for the experience of hand-feeding it.

Unsurprisingly, her earliest aspiration was to be a bird veterinarian.

After completing an animal and wildlife science degree in South Africa, she worked as a bird keeper at a bird park, gaining experience in hand rearing.

In 2002 she immigrated to New Zealand and enrolled at Massey University. In 2006 she finished her veterinary degree and worked in private practice.

“I tried it, but I didn’t like it. I found that for every client who cared deeply about their animals, there were several who didn’t care much at all. I loved the emergency work, but I got bored with the constant cycle of castrations and spays.”

From 2008 to 2010 Argilla completed a three-year wildlife residency at Massey University’s Wildbase and the Wellington Zoo.

“That’s when things really started to evolve; the residency and working with Brett Gartrell, Wildbase director, was amazing. I got to travel to the Subantarctic for my postgraduate research on the causes of yellow-eyed penguin deaths. It was a very exciting time. I started to see I could make a career out of my passion for wildlife.”

In 2011 Argilla took up a five-year role at Wellington Zoo as veterinary services manager; 70% of the role was dedicated to wildlife veterinarian work.

She met Happy Feet there and worked in The Nest Te Kōhanga, the zoo’s award-winning animal hospital and native wildlife centre, which is open to the public.

Dr Lisa Argilla (image care of Lisa Argilla).

Dr Lisa Argilla (image care of Lisa Argilla).

Argilla admits that doing surgery with the public looking on took some getting used to, as did the public’s keen appetite (children in particular) for blood, gore and post-mortems.

But it gave her plenty of opportunities to treat a wide range of New Zealand wildlife – tūī, albatross, tuatara, skinks, falcons and morepork, to name a few.

Every summer she’d head south to help the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust treat injured penguins during the all-important nesting season.

Probably her most memorable surgery was one involving Manukura, the only known white kiwi in the world, which was transferred to The Nest Te Kōhanga from Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre.

It was pretty ground-breaking stuff, Argilla says of the surgery.

Wellington Hospital’s urology surgeon stepped in with a laser to remove stones the kiwi had eaten, after the team found that the stones were too big to remove with an endoscope.

Argilla’s biggest career leap came in November last year, when she left Wellington Zoo to go consulting.

“This year has been a terrific year. I’m doing 100% wildlife work and a lot of fieldwork – it doesn’t get much better.”

And there’s plenty more happening too; Argilla’s an adjunct lecturer in zoo and wildlife medicine at Massey University, and her various consultancy roles continue with organisations such as the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust, Kākāpō Recovery and the Department of Conservation.

She’s also President of the NZVA’s Wildlife Society, a 200-member group with a shared interest in wildlife.

This year Argilla kick-started an ambitious project to set up a new wildlife hospital in Dunedin – the only one of its kind in the South Island.

So far there’s been a stakeholder meeting to launch the idea and garner support from the Otago and Southland communities.

“It went really well. Local vets, the Otago City Council, wildlife conservation agencies like the Department of Conservation – they’re all behind the idea. I’m off to meet Ngāi Tahu shortly; we really need them involved.”

The plan is to have the hospital up and running later this year, says Argilla. Fingers are crossed that Otago Polytechnic will host it.

The facility will cater for sick and injured wildlife that usually have to travel to the North Island for treatment. These trips sometimes take days, increasing the chances of infection and costing many animals their lives.

Initially Argilla will head the operation as the hospital’s manager and wildlife veterinarian.

She will be supported by two veterinary nurses, with the aim being to bring in more staff over time and use the hospital to help train Otago Polytechnic’s veterinary nurses.

Argilla may even take up a PhD to further her studies of the yellow-eyed penguin, depending on how things go.

Right now, however, there’s the small matter of relocating herself and her five much-adored, exotic pet parrots from Wellington to Dunedin while managing a hectic workload.

Not only are the parrots colourful, intelligent and full of personality, says Argilla, but they also miss her when she’s away – well, one in particular.

“It’s the ringneck. She loves a good snuggle with me and gets sulky when I’m not around. And I’ve not been around much lately.”

This story was first published in VetScript magazine.