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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.


  1. Thank you so much for responding to my question!

    I am kinda crushed but I'll be ok ,haha. I knew it would be even tougher to be a zoo vet but this just makes it seem not worth the effort.

  2. I think it depends on what your passion is. If you just think it would be "neat", then it probably isn't worth the effort. But if this is your absolute driving passion and the focus of your life, it may just be. Keep in mind that you'll be working harder to reach that goal than for just about any other aspect of veterinary medicine. Only you can decide whether or not it's worth the effort.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the author that it is one of the toughest areas of vet med, but I think the amazing experiences and one off opportunities you get more than make up for it. I'm a final year vet student and am still undecided as to where I want to end up. A month ago I did a short externship in the Johannesburg zoo. I would definitely recommend doing an externship like this, especially if you think zoo might be an area for you. Here is a link to the post:

  4. Animals are definitely a passion for me; specifically exotic animals. The idea of working with a wid e array of animals is really attractive to me; I have a feeling I would get bored working on dogs and cats all day as much as I love both.

    I'm definitely doing some soul searching as I try to discover whether or not it is God's will for my life to be a vet but I feel really discouraged that this would be a ferociously hard path to go down that leads to massive debt for my future family I plan to build... with unstable job security.... I'm torn!

  5. I too seriously considered becoming a zoo vet and ultimately decided against it because I was ready to start a family after finishing vet school and didn't want to have a newborn while doing a residency. However prior to making this decision I spent lots of time with zoo vets. As a teenager I contacted the vets at several zoos who were always willing to take a few hours to chat. One even let me shadow him for a day, allowing me the chance to see what the routine of a zoo vet involves. I volunteered at local wildlife centers and made sure to be around when the vets were there. I worked as a tech at in the zoo med ward at the vet school while I was applying to get in. I also made sure to attend the AAZV (American Association of Zoo Vets) meetings each year. I did several zoo externships while in vet school. I suggest you do at least some of these things. I met vets from zoos all across the country and the one thing I discovered was that they are all so down to earth and easy to talk to. If you are truly considering this route you should talk to them directly. They will really help you come to the decision that is right for you. As for me, I still wish I could work my way into that position somehow. I do find myself bored after a day full of itchy skin and booster appointments, and the daily interaction with clients who either can't afford proper care or just don't want to pay for my services makes me want to scream. These problems are not as common in zoo med, although there is a whole different set of politics to deal with. Bottom line - The minimal pay to be a zoo vet iss more than made up for in amazing experiences.

  6. Don't be too discouraged. I did externships in zoo settings as I thought I would go in to zoo medicine. I determined that I wanted to go into private practice but still treat a wide variety of species. In my practice I treat everything from mice to primates, sloths to camels. I currently consult with two large aquatic facilities with a variety of marine and freshwater species including pacific giant octopi and Wobegong and reef sharks. On a regular basis I treat and do surgery on privately owned fish as well.

  7. Would all of this apply to a vet tech in the zoo industry?

  8. Probably to a degree, however I don't know as much for techs as I do for vets.


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