An ongoing commitment to animal welfare has led Napier-born Lauren Werrey right to her dream job. The Bachelor of Science (Technology) graduate works as a Bear Manager at Animals Asia's Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, looking after 178 bears rescued from wildlife traders and poachers.
Lauren credits the two work placements she completed during her studies at the University of Waikato for paving the way towards a fulfilling career in animal conservation. “The knowledge I gained through my studies, and the opportunities I was given with my placements, were the foot in the door into the industry,” she says. Giving physically and mentally damaged bears another chance at a life free of pain is one of the many rewarding aspects of her job. "It’s so exciting to watch a bear who was too scared to touch the grass outside finally make those giant steps and enjoy the sunshine."
What made you choose to study at the University of Waikato?
I wanted to be a zookeeper since I was five, but was not really sure how to get into that field of work. In Year 12 I went to a careers expo, and after hearing that the University of Waikato had a degree programme that included work experience opportunities at Hamilton Zoo, I absolutely knew this is what I wanted to do.
What was your favourite subject and why?
I loved all my science classes, especially biology. My favourite was mammalian physiology. I had amazing lecturers who made the classes fun and interactive, and I loved learning about how different species functioned.
You completed two work placements during your studies here. Tell us about that.
My first placement was with AgResearch in the Animal Welfare Department, researching heat stress in dairy cattle. This amazing opportunity taught me a lot about how long-term and large-scale research projects work. I got to use a lot of state-of-the-art equipment, and really developed my technical skills.
My second placement was with Hamilton Zoo – I was trained as a Mammals Keeper and worked with many different species, taking care of their daily needs and conducting keeper talks. This was my dream position.
Both placements were extremely worthwhile. I was very fortunate to continue working at Hamilton Zoo after my placement finished, which gave me the skills and experience to go on and work at a number of different zoos, and eventually end up here in Vietnam with Animals Asia.
What does a typical day look like for you now?
I’m part of a large team that looks after bears rescued from the bear bile trade in Vietnam. I oversee a team of bear carers who complete daily husbandry duties, and I manage the kitchen team which prepares the diets for every single bear. I also write reports on bear behaviour, complete integrations, administer medication, complete daily training, weigh and move bears to the hospital for health checks, run the behavioural volunteer programme, and write updates for our social media channels.
What do you find rewarding about your job?
I love every aspect of this job. Each bear has its own personality, and to watch them grow and develop and learn how to be a bear again is just the most special thing. Sadly these are bears that have suffered on bile farms, and many are physically and mentally damaged. This is where our roles are important in giving the bears another chance at a life free of pain. It’s so exciting to watch a bear who had been kept on their own for ten years finally have the opportunity for social interaction with another bear. Another rewarding part of my job is the outreach work and capacity-building we do with our local team and teams at other centres around Vietnam.
Any advice for getting into your sector?
Don’t give up! It was a long road of study and hard work for years before I got to where I am today. It’s a competitive industry and there were many times I wanted to give up, but it’s all been worth it. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to date.
How did your years at Waikato make a difference to you?
Moving to Hamilton, and not knowing anyone in my halls of residence forced me to step out of my comfort zone and make the friends I still have today. The knowledge I gained through my studies, and the opportunities I was given with my placements, were the foot in the door into the industry. This career is something that has taken me all over the world, and here I am now, living in Vietnam working with an amazing team of people and organisation at Animals Asia’s Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre.