Brushcutting with Beasts

Activities like tree removal have protocols to maximise human and animal welfare.

Property maintenance at Halls Gap Zoo in western Victoria involves routine, awareness of one’s surroundings – and a lot of common sense, writes JOHN POWER.

OPERATOR: Halls Gap Zoo
REPRESENTATIVE: Proprietor Greg Culell
LOCATION: Halls Gap, western Victoria
WEBSITE: hallsgapzoo.com.au

For many property managers, the worst thing that can happen in their day is to come into contact with an unseen sprinkler head. Now, imagine if that head could bite!

Halls Gap Zoo, one of the most significant tourist attractions in the vicinity of Grampians National Park, was established in 1982 as a local wildlife park; since then, it has grown under successive owners to become Victoria’s largest regional zoo. With more than 110,000 visitors each year, the enterprise covers approximately 53 acres and provides sanctuary to 160 species of native and exotic animals. Apart from cheetahs and rhinos, the zoo features world-class exhibits such as meerkats, giraffes, spider monkeys, American bison, saltwater crocodiles, as well as extensive collections of reptiles and birds.

Understandably, property maintenance at this professional zoo calls for sensitivity to one’s surroundings and vigilance in equal measure. Most importantly, says Greg Culell, who, in partnership with his wife Yvonne, purchased the precinct in 2007, grounds staff need a great deal of common sense to balance a range of practicalities, including: (a) horticultural upkeep; (b) visitor comfort, safety and movement; and, of course, (c) animal welfare.

A LIVING PRECINCT

The day-to-day operation of the zoo is a complex exercise performed by 20 personnel, 18 of whom undertake some form of property maintenance. A range of workplace protocols has arisen to ensure everything runs smoothly. These protocols involve both staff and equipment, and are designed to systematise regular activities and consistent conduct– animals like predictable and patterned behaviours.

“Remember that animals are creatures of habit,” Greg says, explaining that most animals are familiar with the sights and sounds of humans.

Routines begin early each day before opening time, with general landscaping duties such as the raking of paths. Raking alone can involve up to three hours’ work each morning, and is an important feature of the zoo’s presentation. “We go through 50 rakes a year,” Greg adds!

More than 2.5 kms of compacted heavy clay paths wind their way through the property. Practically all pathways are fenced on both sides, including a mix of hard enclosure borders, stand-off chain fencing that defines buffer zones between visitors and exhibits, and other fixed or temporary barriers.

Hardy fencing and path materials minimise ongoing maintenance workloads, supplemented by two or three major rejuvenation programs each year.

UTMOST RELIABILITY

Practically every aspect of the zoo’s maintenance infrastructure, including its extensive fleet of outdoor power equipment and associated workshop facilities, has been constructed to ensure that all services are as reliable as possible. Given the zoo’s relatively isolated location near Grampians National Park, Greg says, self-sufficiency is a strong feature of the business.

“Sure, there are some difficulties facing us because we are half an hour from any place where you can get spare parts,” he says. “And once the zoo is open, it’s open, you can’t be ‘half open’, so when you’re working and you have a breakdown, it’s a definite problem.We have to be amazingly self-reliant.”

Dependable equipment, Greg says, not only affects visitor facilities like toilets and washrooms; it also impacts animals, which may depend on fresh water for their survival in extreme conditions. “On a stinking hot 35-degree day the sprinklers have to work; you can’t have them NOT working because that’s what cools down the animals!”

In light of such rigorous technical requirements, various procedures have been implemented to mitigate the ill effects of equipment breakdowns. Foremost among these procedures is a redundancy system, whereby crucial devices like water pumps are always paired with duplicate machines. In the event of a pump failure, for instance, the problem can be solved immediately by uncoupling the failed unit and fitting the spare. As an additional backup, the zoo carries a comprehensive suite of spare parts to guard against multiple catastrophic events.

Machinery used at the zoo is selected according to two main criteria: product quality and suitability, as well as professional support services from nearby dealerships. High-quality backup within easy driving range is particularly crucial, Greg says. Another powerful consideration, he notes, is a commitment to support other local businesses: “As you’ll notice, we’re very strong with spending our money locally; it’s very important to us that we spend every cent we can in the local area because that’s how we sustain an economy. Therefore, we have rationalised our brands accordingly.”

Prominent items include: two side-by-side Kubotas, which Greg describes as “fantastic little vehicles”, a John Deere tractor (70hp), Cox zero turn mower, two Honda push mowers, a DeWALT electric chainsaw, two STIHL pole saws, eight STIHL chainsaws, two STIHL brushcutters, a Mercedes Benz Vito van, a Kubota skid steer loader, and four utes of different brands.

In addition, there are three high-pressure water cleaners, three generators (2 x 1.5kva Hondas, and another unit witha 9kva Honda motor), and numerous Davey water pumps.

By focusing on one dominant supplier for each major product category, the facility has been able to simplify its spare parts inventories, and simultaneously augment in-house knowledge and expertise in relation to one suite of preferred equipment.   

All machinery is serviced on site, where possible, in the zoo’s fully equipped workshop, which is staffed by three part-time maintenance staff and one full-time construction expert.

Smaller power tools are predominantly DeWALT cordless devices, supplemented by a Milwaukee cordless grease gun.

“We stick with Davey pumps, for example, because we have very reliable and honest backup – the same person who [supplies] our Kubotas. Again, with mowers and power tools we use STIHL because we have a very competent and reliable dealer in Stawell.”

COMMON SENSE PREVAILS

As mentioned above, the ways in which maintenance crews perform their activities is dictated largely by common sense. 

For example, when a tree limb fell across the rhino enclosure fencing recently, grounds maintenance personnel had to enter the area. Not only did team members have to ensure their own safety, but they also had to be confident that a procedure was in place to keep the animal secure and unstressed, and the public safe.

Safety is always the first priority when using machinery in the vicinity of animals.

“There is a standard protocol for all of the exhibits,” Greg says. “In cases like this the maintenance staff are not the first port of call with handling of the animals – the keepers have priority with animal movement and related issues. They deal with the animal first, and then the maintenance staff go in. So, the rhino was moved to a secure off-display area before the maintenance crew could commence work.” The zoo contains extensive off-display areas for these kinds of occurrences.

Prevailing circumstances inevitably dictate other protocols, like the use of quiet devices or fewer pieces of equipment in order to minimize impacts on animals.

“But the vast majority of animals are conditioned to the activity of the zoo around them, so we don’t have too many issues.”

As an added precaution, staff receive regular training – this helps to reinforce best practice and keep procedures front of mind, and also allows management to identify people’s skills and match them to specific tasks.

DYNAMIC IMPROVEMENT

The zoo is under continual development not only to expand exhibits and facilities, but also to adopt new-generation equipment.

Halls Gap Zoo is home to more than 160 species of domestic and exotic animals, most of which are habituated to the sights and sounds of humans.

Despite declaring he is not a technical wizard, Greg points out that he “likes toys”, and is always receptive to new ideas that might improve the efficiency or quality of operations. In particular, he says he looks forward to the day when the zoo can derive 95% of its energy from renewable off-grid sources. He and Yvonne are already taking steps in that direction by installing solar panels on the roofing of a new tiger enclosure.

Electrical outdoor power equipment will play a vital role in the delivery of this ambitious program, though Greg estimates that it might take another 10-15 years for affordable, battery-powered product options to become available across all major categories (including ATVs). Presently, diesel and petrol fuel costs are approximately $20,000 per annum, which Greg says is reason enough to embrace more efficient electrical technologies as they emerge. 

In the meantime, the facility is depending on good design principles to reduce maintenance expenses and make the most of existing facilities. For instance, thoughtfully positioned pipes and drainage culverts, constructed in sympathy with the hilly terrain, are helping to protect pathways from washouts and keep important infrastructure intact.

Halls Gap Zoo is a diverse and progressive facility that is making an important contribution to the local economy and wider tourism industry. Patronage is growing by 20% per annum, which is testament to the popularity and professionalism of all staff.