“A good snake’s a dead one”.
Thankfully this phrase is used less and less in Australia these days.
Reptiles are some of the most misunderstood creatures in western society. From a young age, Dr Melissa Bruton learnt to love them deeply and defend their worth valiantly to overcome the injustice behind this sentiment. Australia is the land of reptiles. As she explains:
“To change this perception, you must create a world of understanding…and in understanding snakes, I fell in love”
Today I feel so excited to introduce one of the most competent ecologists, passionate reptile lovers, and dedicated personal mentors I am privileged to know, Dr Melissa Bruton. I am so grateful that today Melissa shares her amazing story: pursuing her love of snakes to land her dream job (several times over) in reptile conservation.
So, let’s start back at the beginning. Growing up in Queensland, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter snakes. Venomous or otherwise, most people persecuted snakes out of fear. When Melissa started high school, she befriended a girl who believed all life had value, causing her to question this perspective. She started to look into it and have conversations with her family about killing snakes.
And the more she looked into it, the more fascinated she became. The way of being a snake is so different to the way of being a human. They don’t mean us any harm.
She fostered a real empathy for reptiles and by year 11 she was head over heels in love with snakes, having dived deep into following this passion.
Always proactive, Melissa’s 2 weeks of work experience at Australia Zoo turned into a regular volunteering commitment, spending 1-2 days a week surrounded by reptiles and other native Australian animals during her late high school years.
And would you believe it – the day she graduated year 12, Melissa received one of those “dreams really do come true” phone calls from the curator at Australia Zoo asking whether she would be interested in working casually during her undergrad studies.
Her commitment and passion were paying off.
Working and studying: “You CAN do both”
Thanks to her parents, who recognised the importance of a good education, Melissa always planned on going to university. She studied zoology and wildlife biology with a smattering of earth sciences, and kept a strong focus on promoting reptiles through day-to-day conversations.
Around this time, Steve Irwin’s fame was skyrocketing as he raised the profile of reptiles through Australia Zoo. And Melissa was right at the heart of that, inspired by her surroundings and support from generous mentors at the zoo. When she finished her degree, she became a full-time reptile zookeeper at the age of 20.
The zookeeping chapters
Melissa put her whole heart into zookeeping. She loved it.
But with rapid growth of a business comes challenges that can take a toll on young people. It’s difficult to know what to focus on and what to let go of when you’re starting out. Melissa decided to leave her “dream job” to protect her mental health, despite having grown so close to the animals she cared for.
But, at the end of the day, you have to look after you, and if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t.
It takes immense bravery to recognize when something isn’t working for you anymore… and to step away from it. Especially when it is a dream you come to identify yourself with.
But Melissa is one of the bravest people I know.
She completely left the wildlife industry on a 9-month hiatus. She picked strawberries to put food on the table and a roof over her head, listened to the radio, and spent time naval-gazing.
Melissa saved up enough $$$ to travel to Hamilton Island and work casual jobs with a friend while exploring the area. But on arriving she popped in to visit the local zoo to say hi and serendipitously, that was the day their only zookeeper was finishing up. She dropped off her CV the next day and had accepted the role a few hours later, which she worked for the next 12 months.
“You can jump in and out of the industry as you need, your experience will always be relevant in this diverse field”
And when you follow your feel good, the opportunities will flow to you.
Zookeeping on Hamilton Island opened Melissa’s eyes to what it took to be the only keeper. She learnt to manage her time and juggle priorities between collecting koala food, animal shows, and general husbandry for a small but diverse collection.
Melissa took a holiday to north Queensland where she visited the Venom Zoo. Upon speaking with the owner, she was offered a job that was more up her ally. She started as soon as she could wrap up her life on the island and transport her two pet pythons over to the mainland. She moved into a shed out the back of Kuranda and spent 6 days a week engaging with people to raise the profile of venomous animals including snakes, spiders and scorpions. Unbeknownst, she had contracted Barmah Forest fever – a mosquito-borne virus that causes chronic fatigue and an inability to focus – during her journey north.
Fatigued and fearing she was losing her mind; Melissa made the decision to leave her new role and move back to her family home to recover. She spent the next 3 years easing her way back to semi-normal health while working short shifts as a waitress at family and fine dining restaurants – now that’s a change!
The research chapters
As often happens when you step away, this time of recovery led Melissa to look for a career change. As she nurtured herself back to health, she felt called once again to work with animals and rekindle her passion for wildlife.
Feeling inspired, she reached out to a respected lecturer from her undergrad studies who was by then the science advisor for Australia Zoo. This kicked off the most fulfilling and enabling period of her career(s) to date. She enrolled in an Honours program studying Arafura Filesnake ecophysiology and started thinking about ecology in terms of animal behaviour and physiology.
At the end of her Honours, Melissa was interested in a PhD and could see a potential project that had connections back to when she was 16 years old at Australia Zoo: understanding the natural history of the little-known Woma python. Melissa began to facilitate conversations to make the project a reality.
As can happen when you actively plant seeds for ideas, everything fell into place.
Never truly done with zookeeping, Melissa worked in a pet shop throughout her post-grad studies, enjoying a “side serve” of captive reptile and bird management and public education to her “main dish” of research. This opportunity came to her from a former Australia Zoo colleague – so Melissa reminds us:
“You never know where your network will open up opportunities”
The risks were high for her PhD project because her academic team weren’t sure if she could find enough womas to fulfil the PhD requirements, but she was prepared to try… every night for nearly two seasons! All those years “getting inside the head of snakes” paid off in finding, tracking and really understanding woma life in an area devastated by habitat clearing.
All up, Melissa and colleagues from Australia Zoo found 30+ woma pythons and she tracked 12 of them for long enough to discover some amazing information about their ecology: how often and where they move, that they climb trees(!), and that they live in burrows with (and sometimes eat) Yakka skinks; a threatened species.
The project worked out exactly what womas need to survive and how to make sure they have safe places to live for a long time into the future. By discovering woma life in detail and studying reptile communities in different places across the landscape, Melissa’s project provided information about the importance of woodlands and restoration globally for reptile conservation. Amazing, right!?
It wasn’t just finding and radio tracking womas that she loved: it was the excitement of doing research that aligned with her passion, it was seeing and better understanding so many of Australia’s valuable and beautiful reptiles, and it was being paid a research stipend to do so.
“I never struggled with why I was doing the project, which can be common with PhDs”
She provides some advice to PhD candidates:
- Choose a project that interests you with tangible positive outcomes.
- Everything we do in life is about collaboration. Your role is to coordinate the project and support your network to support you.
- Build up trust with your colleagues across disciplines by acting promptly, honestly, and with integrity (reputation).
The consultancy chapter
After finishing her PhD, the job market plummeted, pushing Melissa to work in private consultancy. For 2 years she worked on various projects from monitoring flying fox colonies and mapping vegetation in the Murray Darling basin to contributing to environmental impact assessments for mining and development.
She also spent time volunteering on projects that really floated her boat. For example, she spent several months over the wet season living and working with Balangarra Rangers and a PhD researcher in the east Kimberley to catch and radio-track Yellow-spotted Monitors on remote floodplains before cane toads arrived. She also jumped on a last-minute spur-of-the moment opportunity to volunteer with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy for fauna surveys at Piccaninny Plains in Cape York Peninsula.
The not-for-profit chapter
Soon after that, an irresistible opportunity came up: developing and managing large-scale and integrated ecology programs in the Kimberley and Top End of the Northern Territory with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. This was a chance for Melissa to pursue her keen interest in keeping landscapes healthy for all wildlife. She loved living and working in such vast and remote areas.
After 6 action-packed months focusing her efforts on Wongalara in the Top End, an opportunity came up for Melissa to redirect her attention to Yampi Sound Training Area in the stunning west Kimberley: a threatened wildlife hotspot. Here she worked alongside the Dambimangari Rangers and Traditional Owners, AWC colleagues, and external researchers on programs for some of Australia’s most threatened mammals and birds.
Melissa considers her biggest achievements during this time to be ‘side projects’ to work out how to monitor goanna, blue-tongue skink, Kimberley brush-tailed phascogale, western partridge pigeon and feral cat population trends to understand and tackle the devastating impacts of severe fires and cane toads. It was a time of immense professional growth and diversification: she was fully involved in regional fire planning and suppression programs, keeping remote facilities and communications functioning, and mentoring junior ecology staff and interns.
“You never quite know where an opportunity might lead”
Having lived and worked with Melissa here for many years, I can testify to the thoroughness, the completeness, the magnitude of what she achieved in this role.
A sea change
Living in remote communities can be challenging in the long-term, and after 5 years Melissa and her partner Rohan decided it was time to re-enter the ‘normal’ world and ease back into society. They moved to the Torres Strait in far north Queensland for Rohan’s new role supporting Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers to manage land and sea country.
Although Melissa had no plans for paid work, she had trust and confidence to reawaken her latent consultancy business while living on Thursday Island. This manifested into supporting Traditional Owners on-site during island biocultural surveys and soon enough she landed a contract role with the Commonwealth environment department working on plans for threatened reptile species conservation.
“With competence and confidence, you can create the space to succeed”
“It’s all about the strength of your reputation and connections: when you operate with integrity and quality, and maintain relationships, you will land on your feet”
With over 20 years of experience in wildlife conservation, Melissa has always grabbed opportunities as they arose. The magic happens when you let go of expectation and open yourself to opportunities.
“I came to the Torres Strait with no plan and found myself in yet another dream job”
With so much industry experience, Melissa has so much advice for YOU, starting out your own career in wildlife conservation:
- It is important to balance pursuing your passions with supporting yourself throughout your journey – even if the work you do to get by isn’t glamorous (e.g. cleaning restaurant bathrooms).
- Diligence and optimism are keys to success, especially early on.
- Ecology is a long-term game because a deep understanding takes time. Take the pressure off yourself and enjoy the journey.
- Be ready to move to where the opportunities emerge.
- Mentors are invaluable: it is an honor to be mentored but mentors learn too (everything is full circle).
When it comes down to it, there are 2 reasons why I most admire Melissa professionally. First, at every step of her journey she has held true to her goal of raising the profile of reptiles. As you read her story, you’d think she’d planned each step. However, Melissa’s journey highlights the power of intention and passion in directing your life. Second, she is the most generous teacher: for me, investing time in helping others in a competitive industry is the mark of a competent ecologist, and something I will always be grateful to have benefitted from – so thank you Liss!
Links and further reading
Melissa and her colleagues have written up a lot of her research. Her Honours work on Arafura Filesnake is here and her work with the Ombulgurri rangers in Yellow-spotted Monitor detection is here.
From her PhD, Melissa wrote up the information she collected on Woma shelter as well as their arboreality and excavation (PDF issue 56(2) at this link).
Some of her additional research into reptiles in regenerating landscapes focused on the value of regrowth woodland habitat and the importance of habitat quality and landscape context for reptiles in regenerating woodlands.
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This is a wonderful write up about a great individual. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Melissa for a number of years and she is the real deal. Her passion and enthusiasm for wildlife and positive attitude are contagious. Her dedication and great personality has really paid off. Well done and I wish her all the very best in all her endeavours, wherever her future adventures lead her.
Absolutely! Melissa is an amazing ecologist and mentor in her own right 🙂 thank you for your lovely comment
I always knew you would do yourself proud. An amazing woman I’ve had the pleasure to know since the late 90s, work and live with. Keep it up.
such an amazing woman! thank you for your comment 🙂
Amazing article, thanks!
Great article, thanks!
Thanks so much 🙂 glad you enjoyed it!
Greetings! Very helpful advice within this post! It’s the little changes that make the greatest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!
Thanks for your feedback, appreciate your comment!
Jokes are funnier when you tell them & your content is on another level.
Thank you haha appreciate the feedback!
On a scale from 1 to 10, you’re an 11.