EARLY START From the age of three I would sneak stray dogs up into my bedroom and keep them until my parents found them. Then a neighbour gave me her guppies and that's when I began to like fish. I also lived near a lake but I was nervous about the fish nibbling my toes, which is amusing as I went on to study marine biology and work with sharks. When I was 15, my family moved from Wisconsin [to California, on the west coast of the United States] and I became fascinated by the brightly coloured fish and the greens and browns of the kelp beds. I knew then that I wanted to be a marine biologist. SHARK ATTACK I got my first job when I was studying zoology at Santa Barbara University. I took extra classes in marine biology and ichthyology [the study of fish] and in my spare time I volunteered for a marine scientists' group. I discovered Sea World was going to be opening a shark aquarium and they needed two extra members of staff. In those days, marine biology was a male-dominated profession but, through my volunteering, I was recommended. I got the job on January 1, 1978 and worked there for 15 years. MUM'S THE WORD I then went to work in Indonesia, where I felt I really made a difference. I initially went for two weeks to help with a conservation project. I stayed for five years. The kids were so excited and eager to learn. They so desperately wanted to create an Indonesian version of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California but it was very challenging because of the economic climate. After a while, the young people I was working with called me Ibu - a respectful Indonesian word for an older woman that also means 'mummy'. I was moved by that. PANDERED TO When I arrived at Ocean Park 10 years ago, I had already established a good relationship with people [at the park] through our shared passion for conservation. But, although I had worked extensively with sharks, dolphins, alligators and reptiles, I had no experience of pandas. Getting to know An An and Jia Jia was a steep learning curve. Ten years ago, Jia Jia was 18-19 years old and had given birth to six kids and one that had died. An An had been rescued at two or three months old and he was not very sociable. He was a very intense and uptight character and a bit of a loner. We helped them socialise by stimulating their minds and bodies with different food, smells and toys. ACCIDENTS DO HAPPEN I am saddened by the loss of any animal - here or in the wild. Recent events [the park has suffered a number of high-profile mishaps lately] have strengthened our determination to continue our efforts for education and conservation. I have excellent veterinarians. When we need to treat the animals, they research the best, most-modern forms of treatment and work with colleagues internationally. Recently, the [American Association of Zoos and Aquariums] returned to look at Ocean Park. It has developed a rigorous accreditation and you must submit protocols and procedures for all your animals; your care plan, your education and conservation programmes, your safety, even your finances, to make sure you're viable to take care of the animals long term. We first went through the process six years ago and submitted our materials for re-accreditation and came through in March 2008 with flying colours. It might appear that [recent events] are related but they're not. The keeper with the panda [she was bitten on the leg by An An] was a misfortunate accident. She didn't follow the protocol for procedures and didn't check the door lock. She will receive training again when she returns to work and we have put in place even more stringent measures. With the sturgeons [three of 10 'national treasures' given to the park by the mainland last year have died], this is groundbreaking conservation research. It takes time to reintroduce these animals into the environment [salt water] where they spend the majority of their time [in the wild]. We only know about the fresh water part of their lives. BIGGER AND BETTER The expansion of Ocean Park means very long hours and lots of travelling for me. There are six different phases. The first, which will be completed in April, will be home to our giant pandas, giant salamanders and some new red pandas, from the Chengdu breeding base. By early 2010, we'll have an Amazon-focused rainforest and six months later, we'll have opened our Grand Aquarium. After that, there will be the addition of some thrill rides and a polar area. The work should be completed by 2012 but the park is staying open throughout. HANDS OFF I've got the best job in the world. I do miss being hands-on with the animals but this position means I can be much more effective. Our foundation is an Asian conservation leader. We are most likely the first to co-fund a university professorship and send university students into the field. Our animals are ambassadors for their habitats and eco-systems. Through emotional connections forged during guest visits, we have a chance to change hearts and minds to care more about the environment and the animals that share the Earth with us. It was my 31st anniversary in the industry last Sunday. I'm very proud to say that.