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How to become a wildlife vet?

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Jemima Williams

Jemima is a veterinary student at Cambridge University, specialising in Conservation Science and Ecology. Through immersive blog posts, she hopes to help prospective wildlife veterinarians, such as herself, to learn more about the profession. Simultaneously, her goal is to raise awareness about the preservation of our eco-system.

Becoming a Wildlife Vet has been my dream

Becoming a wildlife vet has always been a childhood dream of mine. But back when all I did was pretend to heal my “injured” teddy bears, it just seemed like a distant, unattainable hope. However, now in my second year of Veterinary School, this dream is starting to feel less like a simple fantasy and more like a tangible reality. In the past, I’d repeatedly been told how difficult it was to become a wildlife vet. Yet here I am, slowly but steadily on my way to it. So today I wanted to share some insight on how to answer the question many of us aspiring vets ask ourselves: How do I become a wildlife vet?

It’s probably best to start by qualifying what “wildlife vet” actually means – the term wildlife is so broad, and can range from endemic small-town species roaming our countryside to Africa’s iconic Big Five. However, regardless of species or location, the main role of any wildlife vet is to ensure all animals under their care are given the best welfare possible.

Measuring a tranquilised grizzly prior to affixing a radio collar (Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project)

Surprisingly, classic wildlife vets rarely have actual contact with the animals. Rather, their main focus is on protecting their habitat and ensuring safe interactions between cohabiting human and wild animal populations. This can, for instance, be by building wildlife safe fencing, or by carrying out large scale livestock vaccinations to prevent the spread of transmissible diseases. On some rare occasions, a wild animal will need an intervention: vaccination, surgery, change of location. These are typically done in a single interaction to avoid recapture and unnecessary stress.

The role of a zoo veterinarian is slightly different, as there is usually more direct contact with the animals. On top of maintaining the health of animals in captivity – eg castration, dentistry, pregnancy scans – a zoo veterinarian is also involved in education, rehabilitation and reintroduction projects.

So, how do you get to this level of veterinary practice?

PART I: Academics

First, regardless of specialisation, all aspiring veterinarians must complete an undergraduate degree in Veterinary Science and Medicine, which lasts 5 or 6 years depending on the vet school. The UK currently has 9 vet schools, of which 7 offer degrees approved by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). After graduation, registration with the RCVS is mandatory to be allowed to practice as a veterinary surgeon in the UK. (Note: Graduates from North American veterinary schools accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association can also apply to become members of the RCVS, as well as EU citizens with EU degrees. Some vet schools in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are also RCVS-accredited).

Life as a vet student is filled with animal handling classes. Here I am with a Royal python, also known as ball python – clearly lives up to its name! Note: not represented here are all the nights I spent studying – an important part of the vet degree too!

After completion of the degree, many veterinary professionals recommend working in general or mixed practice for the first couple of years: though this may not be the ultimate goal, exposure to a high case load is a good way to establish core practical skills (spaying, anaesthesia, drug knowledge), which are readily transferrable to work with wildlife. Further training must then be completed to become accredited as a wildlife veterinarian. Many of the aforementioned veterinary schools offer one-year Masters in Wild Animal Health and other conservation modules. Specialist 3-year residencies are also offered by the European College of Zoological Medicine (ECZM), with opportunities to focus on Avian Medicine, Herpetological Medicine (ie reptiles and amphibians), Small Mammal Medicine, Wildlife Population Health and Zoo Health Management.

PART II: Cultivating your own knowledge

While academic knowledge is extremely vital for this career, it is not the only source of information an aspiring vet should draw from. Subscribing to veterinary journals, watching wildlife documentaries and reading educational books are amazing ways to develop a personal resource bank and stay on top of current advances in wildlife medicine. I would personally recommend the BVA’s VetRecord journal – they publish a wide range of articles on both domestic and wild animals, and some articles are available for free online. VetTimes and VN Times are also very informative and possibly more accessible. The Webinar Vet is a useful website to listen to free online seminars about various veterinary topics – though often targeted to qualified vets, the ability to ask questions live makes it easier to follow as a student too.

African lion cubs receive first vet exam (Smithsonian Institution)

PART III: Setting foot in the world

Though currently in expansion, the world of wildlife veterinary medicine is often quite competitive as there are much fewer jobs available compared to the demand. Therefore, it is a good idea to start getting work experience as early as possible. Indeed, more experience not only means additional and more accomplished skills, but also opportunities to socialise and network with qualified professionals. Finding work experience and internships is nevertheless much easier said than done. My main tip would be to apply to as many places as possible (always after careful research into their authenticity), and not to be discouraged by negative responses. Volunteer at organisations in your local area, such as a nearby hedgehog sanctuary – wildlife doesn’t always have to mean elephants and tigers! Write a CV and keep it updated, and talk to people around you about your goals – you never know who might know a friend of a friend looking for a trainee! In this situation, determination and dedication are key. Some examples of reputable (to my knowledge) conservation agencies for work experience before vet: ZSL Whipsnade and London Zoo; Woburn Safari Park; Paradise wildlife park; Shepreth Wildlife park.

Apart from the internships featured on this site, some examples of reputable (to my knowledge) conservation agencies for internships are : Operation Wallacea; VetsGoWild with WorldWideExperience; Gap Africa Projects. During my time as a Zoo Academy Student, providing feeding enrichment for lemurs was definitely a highlight! Conferences and themed lectures are also often good places to spark conversations – only if you have a genuine interest in the subject of course. If currently at university, I would recommend keeping an eye out for talks put on by the Veterinary society and other science-based societies.

PART IV: Conclusion

Veterinary Zoological Symposium 2020, Alpaca Management

In conclusion, becoming a wildlife vet is no easy feat, but the journey is worth it and the outcome is extremely rewarding (is what I’ve gathered from speaking to qualified vets anyway!). The most important thing to remember is to be flexible and open to new experiences: opportunities are available all around us, but it’s up to you to be proactive in searching them out. And do not be discouraged if sometimes this goal feels out of reach or not going in the right direction: the course of a vet career is long but so diverse, so why not make a few pit stops along the way!


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