At home with Michelle Bruggeman

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Michelle Bruggeman at home in Melbourne with Indi, the mini groodle. Pictures: Chris Groenhout

Landing the role as the head of Melbourne Zoo earlier this year was one of those “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments for Michelle Bruggeman.

Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to be a director for an attraction such as the zoo, where she could be in charge of “enthralling people to have an awesome day”.

“The look of delight on the faces of visitors when they come to the zoo is extremely rewarding,” Ms Bruggeman said.

She is the first female director in the zoo’s 156-year history and since taking the helm has formed an instant connection with the animals.

“I do find the meerkats quite fascinating. When I look out my office window, I can see them standing up like they’re guards, watching everything that goes by. They always make me smile,” Ms Bruggeman said.

“I’ve also developed an unexpected bond with one of our giant tortoises, who is 110 years old and the oldest animal in the zoo. When I first went into his enclosure, he started following me around, which the keeper said was quite unusual as he’s not normally that active. I think I found a new friend there.”

Ms Bruggeman said spreading the word about the importance of conservation was No.1 on her to-do list.

“I have made a promise to myself that everyone I talk to I’ll have a conversation about conservation and how we can do more,” she said.

The 47-year-old former deputy chief of YMCA grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs where she still lives with her husband, Phil, and their three teenage children.

The family renovated their 1960s farmhouse about four years ago, which Bruggeman said was the oldest house in the street and had a unique style.

“It had olive-green painted bricks, Mexican-style arches and rooms with purple concrete floors. It really was quite bizarre,” she said.

One of her favourite parts of the renovation was the kitchen splashback her husband designed using positive words and phrases the whole family came up with.

“We wanted the splashback to be something inspiring in the space and because I am so into leadership and positive and innovative thinking, I chose to include words such as Give Generously, Hope, Dream, Believe, Learn New Things and Love,” she said. “I just love how it’s about us.”

Word perfect: Ms Bruggeman in front of her loved splashback.



Typical Saturday morning

I usually wake up at 6.30am. There is no sleep in. I’ll take our daughter to gymnastics or one of our sons to their cafe job and then I go for a 10km run with my sister, followed by a coffee and reading the paper.

Secret domestic skill

Gardening. I am a green thumb and especially love growing herbs.

Signature dish

Fresh salmon cooked with herbs and a sweet chilli and sour-cream sauce with white wine. I serve it with salad and crispy roast potatoes that I parboil first. My secret ingredient is garlic salt — it gives it a little kick.

Chill-out music

Classical music. I really love the soundtrack to Love Never
Dies. I find it completely meditative and relaxing. One of our sons actually performed in this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on stage, so it brings back memories of that, too.

On my bedside table

Other than the alarm clock and a photo of my wedding day, I’ve got a book by (Zoos Victoria chief executive) Jenny Gray about zoo ethics, which I’m in the middle of reading.

Favourite spot to relax

Definitely outside on the deck overlooking the backyard.

Ideal night in

An open fire, a takeaway dinner and a movie on the couch with my husband and the kids. I love a good spy movie.

Happiness at home

Spending time with our kids and playing board games. Our favourite is Rummikub.

My favourite things

Painting

I travelled with my husband and our three kids through Central Australia and outback Queensland for seven weeks in a caravan back in 2012. It was a really bonding experience. Every time we stopped somewhere for a few days, we’d get each of the kids to write in a book about what they’d seen and draw a picture. They still have those books. We found this painting by Lanita Numina Napanangka in one of the Indigenous communities we visited, and I still remember watching the artist working on it. When we got home, we had it framed and put it in our main living area so we can enjoy it every day. It reminds me of our cultural heritage and how fortunate we are to live here.

Creative expression: the painting is enjoyed every day.

Tennis racquet

I play tennis with a group of women I met when the kids were in primary school. We all had a child in the same year level. We call ourselves the Nova sisters because we reckon all the really good tennis players in the world have surnames ending in ova, like (Maria) Sharapova. We rotate being captain and laugh more than we play tennis. I’m really not very good but enjoy catching up with this group of friends once a week for a social game. It’s an outlet where I can just be me. The racquet was a gift from the team when I was captain. My previous racquet was a bit of a dud. I’d had it for 15 years and they all used to laugh at it.

Game on: the tennis racquet was a team gift.

Dog

Indi is a two-year-old mini groodle and very much part of our family. She’s the first dog we’ve had and is very playful. She enjoys going for runs with me and has a bit of a thing for our socks. I also really love how she is so in tune with how people are feeling. We intentionally got a female dog because we have two sons and a daughter, so there are three males and two females in the house. My daughter and I wanted a female dog so when it comes to family votes, Indi sides with us. That way, we get an even male/female spread of votes on things.

Family ties: Indi helps even up the household’s male/female balance.

Runners

I have been running for 30-plus years and find it’s the best thing to clear my head. I am no superstar, just slow and steady. I like to run early morning and a couple of times a week I’ll do an 8km run. I sometimes run with a girlfriend or my sister, so we can have a laugh and a gasbag together. But I also quite enjoy running on my own. This is when I do my best innovative thinking — it’s my ideas time. I really like to run on nature trails because in the morning, you also get to enjoy the wildlife. Once a year, I’ll do a half marathon to support a cause and for the past couple of years I’ve done one that has raised money for the fireys.

Going places: Bruggeman’s runners get a regular workout.

Book about Mum

My dad’s brother wrote a story about my dad’s life when they were kids, which included the time Dad spent as a child in a prisoner-of-war camp in Indonesia during World War II. The book about Dad inspired me to write a story about Mum’s life. I wanted to share her story as well with our kids, so they can appreciate where we have come from. My mum and dad met and married in Holland, where they are both from, and migrated to Australia in 1963, a month after they were married. My parents’ life together is a true love story. Theirs is what I’d call the perfect marriage. I remember telling my parents I’d written the story and Dad cried, he was so touched.

Story time: Bruggeman wrote about her Mum’s life.

Family photo

We love bushwalking and this photo is from when we did three days of massive hiking at Cradle Mountain, in Tasmania, last year. Anyone who has ever done this walk will appreciate the last hour and a half is quite challenging because there’s nothing to really hang on to. We have done so much hiking as a family over the years. Each time we go on holiday, no matter where it is, we try to get some hiking in. The kids just know it will be part of the plan. Life can get pretty busy for us, so on holidays I just want to get back to nature. I also find it’s really good immersion time with the kids because nobody is on their screens.

Nature, nurture: family holidays usually include a hike.

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