Holly's Conservation Journey

From the moment she set her sights on a career in zookeeping, Holly Thompson (BSc Conserv. Wild. Biology 2014) faced discouragement and doubt.

Despite the doubters, Holly's unwavering determination has not only propelled her to a successful career but also made her an inspiration for aspiring conservationists.

Holly's passion for animals began early, but her dreams of becoming a zookeeper were met with scepticism. She recalls, "I was told from a young age by teachers in school that I wouldn't have the opportunity to become a zookeeper. I didn't have the grades and it's so competitive. They told me I had no chance. I remember it so clearly from a biology teacher telling me not to bother. But I always had the passion and I think that’s what is so important for us in our careers and aspirations."

Holly was determined to prove her doubters wrong. She enrolled at Murdoch University, starting with a bridging course before transitioning into conservation biology, which later became conservation wildlife biology.

She started work experience at Perth Zoo in 2001 and secured a casual job there in 2002 while continuing her studies. The hands-on experience was invaluable, allowing her to apply her academic knowledge in real-world scenarios and solidify her career path.

Aged 26 while juggling study at Murdoch and working at the zoo, Holly faced significant challenges, including a battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I think what it taught me about myself is I am very strong and resilient. Murdoch was extremely supportive and helped me with an independent study contract in Borneo,” she said.

Holly's career at Perth Zoo has been marked by significant achievements and heartwarming moments. Starting as a zookeeper, she worked with a variety of species, including primates, rhinos, elephants, tigers, and native species. 




One of Holly's most memorable experiences was leading the release of Nyaru, a Sumatran Orangutan, into the wild. "I led the third Sumatran Orangutan release by Perth Zoo into the wilds of Sumatra. There was a lot of preparation for the transfer and preparation of Nyaru. Nyaru’s preparation for release took a couple of years and he adapted well- being separated from his mother, getting used to the new diet and crate training," she recalled.

The release was an emotional experience. "It was just amazing. We went to the Open Orangutan Sanctuary that the Perth Zoo supports and funds through our partnership with Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project. I was there for his release, and it was epic. He looked at me with an expression of 'Oh my God, what is this?' Just the sight and sounds of another orangutan who had come from the jungle to meet him."

Throughout her career, Holly has encountered numerous conservation challenges, particularly those stemming from the illegal pet trade. The trade has devastating effects on wildlife populations, as she explains, "Gibbons are prolific on the pet trade, and so what we're seeing now is the use of social media platforms to sell these animals. One thing that's occurring is you can buy a baby gibbon, but say it dies within a week, you can tick the policy to be able to pay an extra amount of money to then have another delivered to you if the baby dies. Almost like a replacement policy. It's just growing and building into such a massive framework of people being able to have these animals as pets."

The impact of the pet trade on orangutans is equally distressing. Often, in order to capture a baby orangutan, poachers will kill the mother, leaving the young traumatised and vulnerable. Holly's work in Borneo brought her face-to-face with the tragic consequences of this trade.

"I worked in Borneo last year with some orangutans that were exceptionally malnourished. It was a mother and baby and the mother was skeletal. Her baby would have been probably a year and a half old in great condition. The mother orangutan had starved to look after her baby. Now they've been released. For me as an advisor, to be able to go and consult on these projects, make a difference and help with their welfare has been awesome."

Another significant and deeply personal aspect of Holly's career is her friendship with a gibbon at Perth Zoo.

"Her name's Jermei and we've been through so much together. Her first baby was stillborn, and I was there while she was giving birth. She definitely grieved. She was quite flat and low in demeanour for a good few months afterwards, and so we just supported her as best we could. She's gone on to have three little babies and all are well."

Holly's bond with Jermei highlights the deep connections that can form between humans and animals.

"Just seeing her life for over 20 years, just watching everything she's been through. We appreciate each other and when I look into her eyes I know my role is to help her species in the wild as well, not only at Perth Zoo. This encouraged me to work with International Conservation group Fauna and Flora to partner Australian Zoo’s with them to fund conservation efforts in Vietnam of gibbon habitat."

In her role as Supervisor of Zoology at Perth Zoo, Holly not only leads a team but also advocates for conservation and education. She is passionate about mentoring the next generation of conservationists and often speaks to people about their careers and aspirations.

Holly encourages aspiring conservationists to gain practical experience and remain committed to their goals.

"If you want to be involved in the industry I recommend volunteer work. It is a competitive field but, don't discount that. In partnership with your degree, work experience in places like WA Wildlife, Native Animal Rescue, Kanyana and Kaarakin there are lots of different avenues there," she advises.

She also highlights the importance of staying current with conservation issues and making small, impactful changes through everyday life. From recycling and sustainable sourcing to leaving water out for animals during hot weather, Holly emphasises that everyone can contribute to conservation in meaningful ways.

"I think the best thing people can do individually to look after our wildlife is just try and stay current with conservation issues. We understand that people get compassion fatigue and there's just so much going on in the world. But I think the animals that you're interested in, learn about them and become aware of some of the impacts to different habitats.”

Holly with legendary conservationist Dr Jane Goodall
Posted on:

8 Jul 2024


Alumni, Science

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