Justine Ruta darts around the Jayco Animal Nursery, diligently tending to and cleaning up after the animals. With this year’s Royal Melbourne Show expecting an overall attendance of 450,000 across its 11 days, it is unlikely that she will get much of a break. But she could not be happier.
“I’m living the dream,” the 29-year-old animal enthusiast says.
On the first day of the Show, the atmosphere of the nursery is already lively and fervent. Frequent squeals and bleats permeate the air as young children approach unfamiliar animals in wide-eyed apprehension, and goats clamber up legs like enthusiastic puppies.
Justine, who was born in South Africa and migrated to Sydney when she was 10 months old, has been around animals “all [her] life”. Her first childhood pet was a cat, and she got a horse at the age of 13. Now, she owns a dog, two chickens, a bearded dragon, stick insects, a lorikeet and a cockatiel.
“It’s fun [having so many animals]. Totally fun. And very rewarding. The intelligence of some of these animals blows your mind. I’m almost thirty, so I’m building a collection.”
Since completing animal-based studies at TAFE, Justine has made animals her full-time career. She also helps out at the Golden Ridge Animal Farm in Dural, New South Wales, which provides animals for both the Royal Melbourne Show and Sydney Royal Easter Show.
This is Justine’s very first day working at the Royal Melbourne Show. When observing the way in which she skilfully navigates the nursery, it is hard to believe.
After working at the Sydney Show for eight years, she is looking forward to the week and a half she will be spending in Melbourne.
“This is day one. I’m so excited. The fact that I just got off an aeroplane and came down here . . . [it’s] winning! It’s a great new experience, it’s really exciting,” she says.
When it comes to animals, few are more passionate. Her co-worker at the nursery, Georgia Brown, knows all too well how much the animals mean to her.
“Oh, she absolutely adores her animals. She works with them here, and she works with them just everywhere,” says Georgia.
Georgia met Justine three years ago when volunteering at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, and the two have been working together since. She has plenty of praise about what Justine is like to work with.
“She’s great at organising things and making sure everything runs smoothly. She’s wonderful to work with, she explains things fantastically, works with people fantastically, has patience, and is just an all-round lovely person.”
Justine is easy to spot among the crowd, adorned by a multi-coloured hair ribbon that matches her exuberant, bubbly personality. As she gushes adoringly about animals, her eyes light up in joy.
“I love goats. They’re so quirky. They’re so awesome. They have their characteristics, they’re so cheeky, they’re so naughty because they’re clever enough to be so.
“With our alpaca, that’s Herbert. I’ve been working with him as long as he’s been around. I’m definitely very attached to [him]. Yesterday was the day that I landed and the first animal I wanted to go see was the alpaca. See how he is, [give him] some food because I’m an empathy feeder. He’s having a great time [here].”
The Royal Melbourne Show has been running since 1848, and the nursery continues to be a popular attraction among young children and their parents. According to Justine, watching the children interact with the animals is “very rewarding”.
“It’s so cute. I love it. I think it’s awesome. Especially when you’ve got . . . city kids that don’t really work or have anything to do with farm animals. They’ve come to somewhere like this, and it’s just mind blowing [for them]. And it’s great for kids to start having that understanding of how animals work.”
Justine says the farm raises animals—some of which have been orphaned—from a young age, to allow them to become used to human contact.
“Then you can bring them to shows like this where you have copious amounts of people coming in, [and] they’ve been so desensitised to humans that it’s stress free for them.”
She has watched many of these animals grow up.
“It’s kind of like watching your child grow up, right? You’ve got that connection, you’ve got that bond with them. And then you see them go out into the big bad world. [I’m] so proud,” she says.
Justine loves working with animals so much that she says choosing a favourite memory is impossible.
“Those sorts of stories get blown over by how much happiness I see in the farm. The way that these animals make you feel when you go in is just amazing. It’s really, really lovely.”