The Animal Sanctuary: In full flight

by Diana Balham / 03 November, 2012
A private bird sanctuary north of Auckland teaches birds to fly and may boast the world’s first seeing eye duck.
The Animal Sanctuary, Matakana

Some people will know Shawn Bishop from her rehabilitation work with native birds. Some adopt rescued battery hens from her and others come to her with a heartbreaking case of farm animal abuse. Still more know her in the corporate world where she runs leadership development programmes. And there’s even a guy out there who will remember her as an idealistic 25-year-old from Massachusetts who moved here with him in the 1980s. (“We don’t talk about him any more,” she says firmly. “You know when you’re travelling you meet people and they’re one way, and then when you get them home, they’re a different way?”)

Bishop is seriously crazy about animals. She does a city job but the income goes into running the Sanctuary in Matakana, north of Auckland. It isn’t enough, of course, but she and her husband, Michael Dixon, pour their earnings and savings into the place because they can’t not do it. They’re there most of the year because it’s hard to go on holiday when you run a property that, depending on the season, might house 40 recuperating tui, several dozen kereru (wood pigeons), some lopsided moreporks, blind ducks and a motley crew of hard-luck permanent residents. It’s open arms for just about anything on their 13ha perched on a hill overlooking Whangateau Harbour. The DoC-licensed Sanctuary gets injured and orphaned native birds from the department, the rangers at nearby Tawharanui Regional Park, Sylvia Durrant (“the North Shore bird lady”), vets and members of the public. As we tour the property, it becomes clear Bishop combines a marshmallow heart with a great deal of practical knowledge about wildlife and how best to look after it.


At the “Kereru Flight Academy”, Bishop describes the wood pigeon rehabilitation programme. Being early spring, it’s the quiet season, with only three birds, but “in another month all hell will break loose and that’s when we’ll start having a lot of babies”, she says. Two are model birds that teach newcomers aviary behaviour. The third is recovering and will be released, all going well. Some pigeons come in starving after a poor berry season. “Because of the dry summer, there was no food and a lot of berries just dropped unripened. People were walking up and picking the pigeons out of the trees and bringing them to us.” But most of the birds have sustained concussions and shoulder or spinal injuries from flying into windows. Injured kereru must relearn the art of flying. “When they first come in sometimes they can’t use their legs at all, but with time and arnica it’s amazing.

Within a few days, their legs are starting to move and they right themselves and then they start to stand up.” Rehab has three stages, explains Bishop. “The first stage is when they can fly downward and control their flight. Stage two is when they can fly level. Stage three is when they can fly up. We can’t release them until they reach stage three because their food source is almost all up high in the trees.” A trapdoor at the top of the aviary is handily placed next to a puriri tree – its berries are a favourite food source. “With the one we released recently, all we did was open the door. She took a couple of days and then she left. We don’t have to worry about the others because they can’t get up there. It’s a self-release system: they meet the criteria, they can go.”

As well as offering the newbies tips on flying, model birds teach the others about aviary food, which doesn’t look like what they’re used to eating, says Bishop. They can sit next to a bowl of fruit salad and starve. “As soon as they see one of the model birds eating they go, ‘Oh my God! Oh, that’s what that is!’ And within 24 hours they’ll be feeding themselves. Kereru are beautiful. They’re not smart.” Tui, on the other hand, are Einsteins in comparison. Bishop kept an injured bird, Cassidy, in the house for two years. Tui have two sets of voice boxes, Bishop says, “and they evolved that to rule more birds. So birds call and what they are saying is: ‘This is my space, this is my food. Piss off!’ Or, ‘Hey, you’re a honey, come on over!’ What tui did was they learnt the other birds’ languages and mimicked so they could say it in tui, then they’d say it in kereru, then they’d say it in bellbird. When you think about that, it’s an amazing evolutionary thing.”

Cassidy was a great mimic in the human world, too. “He would say, ‘Come on, gimme a kiss!’ He used to do the phone and we’d come running and he’d put on his innocent face. The microwave bell would go and I’d say to Michael, ‘Whatever’s in the microwave is ready.’ He’d say, ‘I haven’t got anything in the microwave.’ It took us a while to realise it was the tui doing it.”


We meet Moby, a male paradise shelduck with a fear of flying, and Amelia, a blind female. “Since Amelia’s blind and he can’t fly, we’re hoping they will make a pair and he can be her seeing-eye duck,” Bishop says. It’s unusual to see a shelduck on its own because they mate for life. “When one dies the other one usually dies soon after. They stop eating and die of a broken heart. In Australia, they call them ‘the $1000 duck’ because if you kill a shelduck it’s a $500 fine. But they charge you for both because they know the other one’s going to die.”

A smallish female cockatoo sits in a tree, pecking away at the new spring shoots. “That’s all right,” says Bishop. “We kept this tree just for her.” “Hello!” rasps Snow, in a squeaky child’s voice. “Scratch?” Bishop spends several minutes obligingly tickling her while we hear her story. Her owner has gone to prison. A builder, he had her for 18 years, taking her to work with him every day and out on his boat on weekends. Threatened by his partner’s ex, he was brutally attacked and, after several warnings, shot the guy. “Luckily, my husband looks a lot like [him]! Same height; they’re both bald. I’m the one who saved [Snow]. I brought her home and she took one look at my husband and she just threw herself at him. Little hussy!”


The Animal Sanctuary - morepork

Everybody has something they’re passionate about, says Bishop. For her, it was animals but a deeply scarring episode with a dog that had been run over convinced her she couldn’t be a vet. “So I kind of squished that for a while. I moved here and set up the training. We had all these animals in Takapuna and I’d get in the hot tub at night and I’d get all teary and say, ‘It’s nothing. I’m happy.’ But there was something missing.” Ten years and a lot of hard work later, the Sanctuary is busier than Bishop ever could have imagined. “People think that this just happened,” she says. “But we built a plan so that we could eventually leave our corporate lives, come to the country and set up the Sanctuary. We worked our buns off for years. We still work from early morning till late at night. But I don’t get in the hot tub and get teary any more.”

The day after I visit, Bishop broke her ankle rescuing wild peacocks. Describing this as a “setback”, she says she heard a loud snap but all she could think was: “Don’t let the peacocks out!” She crawled out of the way, and when all the birds were captured, she admitted she was hurt and was taken to hospital.

The Sanctuary has just celebrated its 10th anniversary but no longer has any official funding. It is not open to the public but Sanctuary Supporters (who typically give about $5 a month) can visit, receive photos and updates and attend special events. For more information, go to
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