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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zoo Medicine

I just received this email from David....

I am interested to hear what you might know about zoo veterinarians. What might the outlook be for this career path as far as salary/competition/availability goes? I am a junior currently majoring in biology and have wanted a career in animals since I was in kindergarten but recently took a shine to veterinary school about 6 or so years ago. I have been discouraged by a lot of what you have talked about as far as the job outlooks go for large and small animal vets, but I am hoping for a ray of hope before I give up on this dream, haha.

When I was young my dream was to become a zoo veterinarian.  I loved the idea of working on exotic animals and being around animals that few ever handled.  From an early age I thought about this route and planned for it.  I even had the opportunity to be around some exotic animals at the veterinary practice I grew up working for, as the owner did some work with privately owned large cats.

My eyes were opened when I spent the summer of 1990 working at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  I was there doing a behavioral internship as I developed my interest in animal behavior.  The facility had large colonies of rhesus macaques, sooty mangabeys, and similar primates.  Though I mainly helped with collecting lab samples and doing my own project, I was able to spend some time with the veterinarian there.  It wasn't as cool and interesting as I had expected.  The patients were always fully sedated and it was more about treating wounds and other injuries.

When I went to graduate school for my Master's degree I ended up doing a research project on ermine and spent the summer of '92 at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minnesota.  I had daily access behind the scenes as I was studying neonatal and maternal behaviors of the weasels.  I did have a few opportunities to spend a little time with the vet at the zoo and it was even more eye-opening than my time at Yerkes.  Between the keepers and the vet I learned how incredibly political zoos could be.  Though the animals were well taken care of, many decisions were made because of a desire to get people through the gates rather than for the benefit of the exhibits or workers.  There was a constant balance and battle between making money, pleasing patrons, and letting the animals be healthy and happy.  As a vet you're dealing with administrators, not clients, and it's not all warm and fuzzy.

I also learned that becoming a zoo vet is probably the hardest field of veterinary medicine.  The animals in zoos are often rare, difficult to care for, and sometimes little is known about the specifics of their physiology and nutrition.  If I make a mistake on a patient it's tragic because it's a family member.  If a zoo vet makes a mistake they may be hurting one of the few animals of that type in captivity.  In a zoo you are working on pretty much every kind of animal known to man:  insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, ruminants, carnivores, birds of all kinds, and so on.  A zoo vet has to know more about different species than pretty much any other vet.

That training is hard to come by.  There are few zoo medicine residency programs in the US and practical experience can be few and far between.  Because there are so few openings, competition for those residencies is fierce and only the absolute best make it in.

Competition for veterinary positions is also tough.  Because there are limited numbers of zoos and so many people want to be a vet in them, often you'll have a couple of dozen vets who apply for any opening.  And since so many applicants are available the zoos don't have to pay as high of a salary as you might think.  That's not to say that zoo vets are poor, but the pay isn't as high as someone with such expertise might be expected to make.

These were only some of the reasons why I decided not to pursue this aspect of veterinary medicine.  I discovered that I liked interacting with clients and enjoyed the personal bonds with pets, which you're not going to get in a zoo.  I get my exotics "fix" by working with non-traditional pets.  Just today I saw a turtle, chameleon, two guinea pigs, a hamster, and a rat!

David, I know this may burst your bubble a bit.  Being a zoo veterinarian is one of the most specialized aspects of veterinary medicine and therefore one of the most difficult to enter.  It's not impossible, but it will be even harder than being a general practitioner. 

Man, I'm being a real downer with those wanting to be a vet!  I honestly wish the prospects were better.