Taronga Zoo, 1978
(contributed by Julie Vint)
Tuesday, March 25, 2008.
It is with great sadness that I learnt of the unexpected passing of Des Spittall yesterday morning at the age of 57. Des is widely admired and respected in the Australian zoo industry, and his huge contributions will be greatly missed. Des was a real "gentle giant" that loved life and could drink "Bundy" with apparent immunity. His ability to not only "party harder" than many who were decades younger than himself and yet still remain very alert and articulate after an all night session is legendary. My sincere condolences go out to his wife Liz, his daughters and extended family and colleagues, particularly those at Seaworld and Paradise Country. Your friendship, humour, humanity and expertise will be sorely missed Des. Geoff Underwood.
I concur with Geoff. The bloke is a national treasure in the Australian zoo industry, one of the original 'wildlife warriors'. I have been fortunate enough to sit alongside Des and many other keepers at various conferences and when I lived on the coast as well as Currumbin get togethers, and be enthralled about experiences Des and his colleagues had in their heyday. I will never forget those times and would like to pass on my condolences to his family and colleagues. Sincerely, Glenn Sullivan.
G'day All, I first met Des when I arrived in Sydney to start work at Taronga Zoo Bird Dept. after a stay at the Melbourne Zoo back on November 13th, '77. On arriving at Taronga Zoo, I met Des and he took me back to his home where I met Liz and spent the night swapping animal stories. Before leaving Taronga Zoo in March of '78, I spent my last couple of weeks working for Des and really enjoyed working for him! My condolences to Liz and their children! Wayne Jackson.
So sorry to hear about Des, he is much too young. One of my best zoo memories takes place in 2002, just before the ASZK conference up at Beerwa, when I got to spend the day with Des at seaworld. After the day I had to make my way somehow up to the conference and Des, being as kind as he was offered me a lift in his old kind of combi van. He had to pick you up at the airport, and he made up a plan that I would greet you and pretend that you and I were old friends - even though you didn't know me at all and he watched through the glass windows of the airport chuckling away. Anyway, he then drove me to the Ettamogah Pub and you both waited with me until my lift arrived, several scotches later....... Thanks for the memories, I know he is greatly respected and will be surely missed. Lesley Small.
Like many in the industry, my reaction to the passing away of Des Spittal was one of total disbelief. Although I had lost contact with Des many years ago when we were both at Taronga Zoo, I followed his zoo career from afar; I was pleased to note that he managed to successfully pursue higher objectives in the zoo world of Australia. From those days at Taronga I vividly recollect Des as being one who would professionally go a long way in the zoo world. He was a dedicated and experienced animal keeper, skills that were called upon often (together with his impressive physical 'frame') by aquarium staff to assist in the handling & restraining of various marine mammals. From memory, Des was also the top graduate from the first Animal Care course, which I taught at Taronga in the early to mid-1970's. May he rest in peace..... Erich Friese.
To all Des's friends - I knew Des for over 30 years and concur with Eric's sentiments. He was in fact one of the first professional Zookeeper in Australia gaining his Zookeeping certification in the late 70's in the first course ever given. He was a pleasure to be around and to work with. I like many will miss him but he does leave a long lasting legacy in the Zoo industry. John West.
Thank you for passing on this very sad news. I saw Des very briefly only last week at the ARAZPA conference in Sydney, but I was only there for a day and wasn't able to say hello. As you know, Des also spent many active years at Melbourne Zoo, although there probably aren't too many here now who remember him. I'm one of those and certainly recall his enthusiasm and love of life - it is hard to realise that he is no longer with us. From all of us at Melbourne who knew him, he will be remembered very fondly. And to Liz and their daughters, my sincere condolences. Chris Banks.
Well I am absolutely shocked to hear the news about Des it is amazing how many people his life touched. Although I never worked along side Des I also spent conferences chatting and having drinks hearing his stories. It was working along side people like Des that inspired many of us to push on through walls this industry has put in front of us over the years. In my short break that I had from the industry I worked as a Queensland Police Officer with his daughter strangely enough, it is a small world. Geoff please pass on my condolences to Jasmine, Liz and the rest of the family for me as I now work a long way away. Regards, Tim Sinclair-Smith.
Des was a good friend to all who had the pleasure of meeting him and was selfless with sharing his great knowledge of all things zoo. Des was one of the founders of the Queensland Wildlife Parks Association (QWPA; now ARAZPAQ) and a great contributor to many industry initiatives such as the Codes of Practice and the Exotic Animal Risk Advisory Committee (EARAC). Des held a number of positions on various committees over many years though even during the times that he was not officially on a committee he participated tirelessly and was able, through his widely respected knowledge and wonderful presence, to provide reasoned direction to any gathering or discussion. Many who had the pleasure of knowing Des will also have had the pleasure of having a beer or two with him; I certainly did and I enjoyed these opportunities greatly. Des, despite his industry stature, always shared himself and his knowledge with all who approached him. I believe that he was a mentor to many. Des will be very sadly missed. My thoughts are with his family. Regards, Michael.
Coast mourns death of its Dr Dolittle.
Tribute to wildlife lover.
Currumbin Sanctuary, 21st April 1986. Sydney, March 2008.
(contributed by Julie Vint)
I first met Des in about 1980, although I had heard of his achievements well before then. I was immediately impressed by his professionalism, enthusiasm and his "love of life". Des became a role model for me early in my career and I immensely enjoyed catching up with him over the years, always enjoying his company and the chance to share a drink or two.. It was an honour and a privilege to have known Des and whilst he leaves a huge legacy he will be sadly missed by all those who knew him.
A big thank you to those that have shared your memories, messages and photos of Des. If you would like to contribute material to this page, please e-mail me and I will include it in future updates.
Melbourne, 29th April 2005
Recently added tributes:
March 1974 my first week at Melbourne zoo Des is showing me the ropes at the newly built big cat area, he unlocks the heavy steel door to feed the tigers and this giant of a man tears the door off the sliding rail.. and in the same day I see him holding a small marsupial no bigger than his thumb with the utmost gentleness . This was the essence of Des unbelievably strong and with a gentle humility .We worked together for a year and these traits remained constant , our paths crossed on a few occasions in the preceding 34 tears and it was a always a pleasure to be in his company. To Liz and family I extend my condolences and hope the words of Horace Smith are of some comfort "Death is but the sleeping partner of life" Marius Yianni.
Hi Geoff, I wanted to add my tribute to the long list. Firstly, I would like to say a heartfelt 'thank you' to everyone who has contributed to the Tribute Page for Des, and particularly for offering condolences to the staff at 'PC'. We have been shattered with Des' sudden departure and continue to grieve for him. I first met Des back in 1998 when I started my position at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary as a Keeper. He was a HUGE man, with an amazing long beard and long pony tail. I remember feeling scared of this man, who looked more like a biker than the head of Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary! But as I had the opportunity to work with him, I learnt there was nothing to be scared of - he was the sweetest natured man I had ever met. He left CWS and went on to Seaworld, to work with the Polar Bears and later to run PC. It was then that our working relationship was rekindled as I was employed as the Snr Koala Keeper at PC. I have to say that there is no other like Des. I would spend every afternoon sitting down with him after work, "chewing the fat" so to speak about what was going on in the koala dept. Now if any of you truly knew Des you would know that koalas weren't his favourite animal (he used to tell me often!!!) but that never stopped him from knowing them intimately. He knew all of our koalas and their bloodlines and was always there to help out when I needed clarification. But beyond the knowledge he had of all wildlife I want to point out what a caring man he was. I have never had such a close relationship with a boss who knew when I was down and would give me a hug, calling me "Bubs" or alternatively when he was stressed he would accept my help and hugs, too. I could sit with him and have a drink and vent my problems and he would listen kindly, only offering advice at the end of my speech. He was always there to listen and help. I am truly blessed to have worked so long with him, and I am blessed to have had such a great teacher. We have planted a "Wolemi Pine" for Des at PC, on the hill, overlooking the Wildlife and Farm. We have been having our staff meetings around the Pine and ask Des to help direct us in this hard time. Our lives at PC have changed, and things will never be the same without him. Liz is keeping in touch with us at PC and she is still doing it tough right now, and I ask that we keep her in our prayers and thoughts to help her (and Jaz, Mel and little Asher) through this time. Naomi Andrew, Senior Koala Keeper, Paradise Country.
Hi, My name is Jo I worked at Palm Beach Currumbin Rugby Union Club where Des spent many of his evenings/afternoons to have a beer or “apple juice” (rum and water) after work, and unfortunately for all of us that knew him – that was where his funeral/wake was held; as someone who doesn’t have their own family around this country Des was my “Aussie” Dad, if I had had enough of people that were drunk or having a hard time I knew I could always look up from the bar and see Des looking at me making sure I was all right and as someone who is quite small in stature in a bar with Rugby players that was very reassuring. No-one “messed” with me while that truly beautiful man was around. I remember putting my hands up with his and my tiny hands seemed so insignificant. I was always protected. Then as an animal lover I loved talking to him about his stories. As much as he had achieved he was so un-pretentious. My heart has always gone out to Liz, Jaz and Mel, Liz being another person that constantly is a care giver – but for special needs children, as well as her own beautiful girls. The two of them have made a constant imprint on this earth, Des always will in spirit – he is always with us and the animals, and Liz is still doing it to this day with the kids that she helps in every day life and has helped me with my own special needs child. She is a strong woman I think of her every day and think about the two of them as a couple and the way they implanted their impressions on all of us who met them together. The best thing I ever did career wise was start at that Rugby club where for sure by 6.30 there he would be this beautiful man with a “hello jo jo my darling” VB please – or maybe an apple juice. Love you always Des, forever looking into the sky talking about how you touched my heart. – Jo McCoy - BLESS HIS GIANT HEART!!!!!