Meet Your Local FM: Melbourne Zoo’s Zac Saber on ecological mindfulness

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facility and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about!

Anticipating that many of us are hopefully filling these long aestival days with fun cultural activities, and the likelihood that zoos and wildlife sanctuaries across Australia are currently welcoming droves of giddy children – and parents battling waning tolerance and school holiday fatigue – this week we talk to Zac Saber, the sustainability supervisor at Melbourne Zoo.

Cherished as a Melbourne cultural institution for 160 years, Melbourne Zoo’s current facility management is influenced by the wider societal pursuit to minimise ecological footprint, alongside extending care towards flora and fauna and practising sustainable water and waste removal. 

Green space in the heart of the concrete jungle

As usual in the world of facility and operations management, Saber’s path towards landing at Melbourne Zoo was non-linear and “colourful”, however, he was constantly guided by a passion for sustainability and conservation work and a belief in accessible environmental education. An industry start in the curatorial department at Melbourne Aquarium saw Saber involved in diving maintenance, water chemistry, animal health reporting, and eventually conservation and sustainability project management.

Accepting a job at Melbourne Zoo was rather serendipitous for Saber, and now, he primarily oversees water and waste management, among many other things. He is proud to be involved in the Zoo’s Water Treatment Plant that utilises recycled water and offsets an impressive 50 percent of the park’s annual usage.

Saber describes the dynamics of the Zoo’s sustainability team – encompassing zookeepers, sustainability managers and horticulturalists – as akin to a “small town” that thrives on internal management, relishes cross-department work and prioritises providing a stable, safe and peaceful environment for animals.

While it is challenging to spin different plates – responding to plant failures, water and waste management, attending to after hours calls – Saber is thrilled to work somewhere that offers green space and stunning biodiversity in an urban jungle, and overall, is grateful for a ringside seat to innovative conservation efforts.

Zac Saber in front of Melbourne Zoo’s water treatment plan.

Facility Management: Talk us through your career trajectory – how did you become the sustainability supervisor at Melbourne Zoo? 

Zac Saber: It’s been a pretty colourful lead-up to my current role. I studied a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife Conservation and Biology) at Deakin University, and broadly speaking, was very interested in conservation work.

I completed some zookeeping work through university placements, but I was always more interested in larger scale impact and ended up in a bush regeneration role working through waterways in south-eastern Victoria.

Following a small injury, I accepted a job at the Melbourne Aquarium in the curatorial department. This role was originally supposed to be administrative, but following the pandemic and essential worker restrictions in Victoria, it evolved to be a bit of everything – diving maintenance, water chemistry, animal health reporting, finance, grant writing and eventually conservation and sustainability project management.

During this time, I overhauled the site’s waste management, implemented organic waste streams and made changes to the single-use plastic products that were commonplace at the Aquarium. When Melbourne’s lockdowns eased, I arranged numerous beach clean-ups and forged relationships with inner city businesses and non-for-profit organisations in the broader Melbourne area. 

I was lucky enough to pick up a secondment opportunity as a corporate social responsibility coordinator for the Australia and New Zealand sites, which added charity partnership work to my resume. I was also completing post-graduate study in Climate Change Adaptation through Griffith University in my spare time. 

At the end of this secondment, I saw the role pop up at Melbourne Zoo and it seemed like a logical next step with my experience in the zoo and aquarium space, alongside my passion for sustainability – it was pretty incredible timing to be honest!

What are your responsibilities and who are your stakeholders?

There’s two major areas of responsibility from an operational standpoint – water and waste. 

I manage the operational outcomes of these two departments, and the maintenance and servicing of the equipment. I would say most of the Zoo staff are stakeholders, as there’s a lot of different people that will be impacted if we can’t provide water or remove waste!

At Melbourne Zoo, we process all of the organic waste made on-site internally, which is a massive amount of animal bedding and manure, and most of this is done by our shredder and an in-vessel aerobic composter called the HotRot Machine. We process this to make a compost-like product that is currently being utilised by Werribee Open Range Zoo for their expansion. There’s a few waste streams that we contract out, so subsequently there’s plenty of logistics planning and contractor management. 

Native to Victoria, the little penguins that call the Zoo home are the smallest of the species.

The other big part of my role is water management. We have a significant Water Treatment Plant at Melbourne Zoo that involves us capturing and recycling stormwater and waste water from exhibits and moats. This treatment plant provides recycled water irrigation to all of the gardens that our incredible horticulture team manages, as well as various water bodies across the property. Our ability to utilise recycled water and avoid potable water use has been a huge achievement. We offset approximately 50 percent of our annual usage by having this plant, however it’s not without its challenges. Due to the large demand for recycled water at the Zoo, any plant failures must be dealt with quickly to avoid impacting animal welfare, visitor satisfaction and general zoo operations.

Our water team also manages Aquatic Life Support Systems within our Wild Seas Precinct and filtration on exhibits, such as the Asian elephant and Pygmy hippopotamus habitats. These filtration systems allow us to minimise the need for regular water changes in exhibits where animals frequently soil water.

Aside from this, I work with the senior manager of sustainability and environment and members of the corporate team to brainstorm how we can achieve certain goals such as resource reduction and sustainability considerations for projects. 

What does your average day as sustainability supervisor look like?

It varies so much depending on the needs of the Zoo that day.

I manage the water, waste and irrigation teams and participate in strategic sustainability meetings with counterparts from other Zoos Victoria parks and the corporate team. A lot of this involves aquatic life support systems and as a result, problem solving any plant failures can take precedence over what was planned for the day. Addressing a burst pipe is far more time sensitive than responding to an email!

A normal day would include system checks and checking in with various departments and teams to ensure waste is processed in a timely manner, irrigation is delivered effectively and water filtration and pumps are running. There is also a fair amount of contractor management and logistics thrown into the mix.

What other departments do you work in conjunction with?

I work mainly with the life sciences – zookeepers – and horticulture team, but also collaborate in some way with most of the Zoo staff. Everyone plays a part in the sustainability of the organisation, so there’s extensive cross-department work. 

As animal welfare is so important to the Zoo, there’s a big focus on maintaining a peaceful and stable environment for the animals. 

The horticulture team works hard to provide vegetation and natural landscapes for animals in and around the exhibits, which means they need to be irrigated regularly. We strive towards having premium quality water in exhibits for health, welfare and aesthetic reasons. We want to keep the Zoo beautiful, so the water needs to be as clean as possible. Additionally, removing waste without disturbing the animals is crucial, so the logistics around waste and bin collection requires liaising with the life sciences team.

Does technology play a part in your day?

Absolutely! These days most of our systems are automated with a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) and Human Machine Interface (HMI) system, or even function on Supervisory Control and Data acquisition (SCADA)  – from the Wild Seas Life Support Systems through to our organics processing and HotRot Machine, there’s a lot of technology that we use daily.

It also helps a lot to have remote access to identify faults. On a big day, I might walk ten kilometres around the Zoo between all of the plant rooms, so having the tools to remotely check if something is running is very useful. 

What are the biggest challenges and obstacles of your job?

I think any job involving animal care comes with an array of challenges, but more often than not, these challenges are also rewarding. I can receive a lot of calls outside usual Zoo hours when things go wrong, but this is largely due to possible threats to  animal welfare.

Also, working anywhere that is open 365 days a year means work never stops. This is compounded by the zoo itself being 160 years old, which means there is plenty of old pipework and infrastructure that creates challenges for projects!

The Orchard butterfly is one of the 600 species in the Zoo’s butterfly house.

Are there any misconceptions about your role that you’d like to address? What do you think people picture when you say you’re the sustainability supervisor at Melbourne Zoo, and what is the reality?

As sustainability is at the forefront of business management these days, there’s often a perception that my role is very desk-bound and corporate – the reality is that I’m in more of a  hands-on operations role.

I think because of the unique way Zoos Victoria operates, our sustainability team covers a range of tasks and responsibilities that other businesses might not, such as on-site organics processing. We’re kind of like a small town – we manage more internally than a lot of other businesses do.  

Is the position of sustainability supervisor a fairly new role for cultural institutions such as the Zoo, and do you think your role speaks to general societal willingness to work sustainably and reduce ecological footprint?

In the long timeline of Melbourne Zoo, my role and department are relatively new, which is partly to do with the global paradigm shift, however I think it also represents change across the industry. For a long time, animals at zoos were purely used for entertainment, but as the world modernises, so does the industry. Businesses these days must acknowledge their environmental impact.

Zoos Victoria’s sustainability commitment reflects its identity as an ecologically mindful conservation organisation. We do a lot of work in conservation, but also recognise that our power, water and waste will have an impact on the planet, so by reducing that footprint, we are better equipped to fight extinction and reduce habitat loss. You can’t campaign for species conservation if you are simultaneously contributing to habitat loss through unsustainable procurement.

What have been some career highlights working at the Zoo?

It’s difficult to narrow down the highlights. We’ve done many complex and high stakes filtration and life support upgrades over the last year, and it is always satisfying to deliver these projects smoothly and learn from them.

I’ve also really enjoyed presenting to school groups and external organisations about our waste management, water processing and solar energy generation. I think environmental education is one of the most important parts of the global shift toward sustainability, therefore, having the opportunity to talk about challenges and achievements is really valuable and rewarding.

Lap up feline fun at the Lion Gorge.

What do you love the most about working at Melbourne Zoo?

The variation is definitely one of my favourite things. The broad scope of my job in such a diverse business means there really aren’t any two days that are the same, and there’s a lot of opportunity for learning. I work with a range of specialists in different fields and I love that there’s a lot of knowledge that you pick up even just in conversation.

Navigating project management in the midst of day-to-day tasks and plant breakdowns can make for a very busy day, but it’s mitigated by sharing the awe that our visitors experience when they see our exhibits and gardens. It can be super challenging to juggle so many tasks of differing urgency but it’s also really satisfying. A boring day at the Zoo doesn’t exist for visitors or staff!

What do you think the Zoo gives back to the city of Melbourne?

The Zoo is a Melbourne icon. With 160 years of history, I think everyone from Melbourne and beyond has memories here. It provides people an opportunity to experience wildlife and green space in the heart of an increasingly developed city and remain inspired by our conservation actions.

Photography supplied by Zoos Victoria.

Check out all Melbourne Zoo has to offer this summer. 

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