Combining vet nursing with a passion for working with wildlife overseas

Michaela Vinales vet nurse

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a vet nurse (VN), but it was David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes that inspired me to want to work with wildlife in Africa. 

After months of research into how I could achieve this, I realised that I needed clinical experience with domestic animals first, so I studied vet nursing at the Royal Veterinary College, London. 

During second year, our lecturer revealed that South African wildlife vet William Fowlds was coming to talk to the students, accompanied by vet and conservationist Emily Baxter. 

They presented us with an amazing opportunity to work alongside them and their team dealing with wildlife. The course was called Vets Go Wild, partnered with Worldwide Experience, which offers global volunteering opportunities. 

It was a dream come true. I gained a place on the course and was soon heading to South Africa. I was a bit apprehensive when I discovered I was the only VN student in the group with 15 vet students – I felt I needed to up my game. 

During our three-week trip, we were lucky enough to experience working with rhinos, elephants, lions, giraffes, antelopes, zebras and many more species besides. 

As it turned out, being the only nursing student worked in my favour. I had much more experience of practical skills and anaesthesia, and was often asked to help the others. 


One of the main skills we learnt early on was that teamwork wasn’t only essential, it could be life-saving. In the bush, you have to be able to rely on your team to keep everyone safe and to make sure the job is done correctly. 

Although the animal you are dealing with may be under anaesthesia, you never know what other animals are watching you – you always need someone to keep watch. 

'As it turned out, being a vet nursing student worked in my favour'

My anaesthesia skills blossomed, along with my practical nursing skills, such as setting up intravenous lines, blood sampling, working out drug doses and general organisation – I was gaining lots of experience that I knew would also be useful in practice.

Gaining confidence and maturity 

By the time I returned home, I was much more confident in myself and what I was capable of.  

Once I had qualified as a VN, I contacted the Vets Go Wild team again and was delighted to be offered a three-month internship. As a qualified VN, I could take on more responsibility, but was I ready for it? I decided there was only way to find out – to go for it. 

During my internship, I not only had the responsibility of working alone with domestic animals and wildlife, I also worked as a team with other interns and the vet students. 

As my confidence grew, William and his team increasingly trusted my ability and I joined them on more challenging cases. Over one weekend, Emily and I dealt with cases involving 11 buffalo, three rhinos, five nyalas, a leopard cub, five domestic cats and six dogs, as well as consultations. 

I learnt how to juggle my time, work with minimal resources, prioritise animals and how to ‘make a plan’ when things didn’t go to plan. I was even given the responsibility of hand-rearing a sable antelope calf after it was rejected by its mother – a real highlight of my experience. 

By then, the end of my internship was in sight and I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got back to London. That’s when I received a life-changing text. A vet from my training practice explained that he was opening up a new, independent vet practice and he invited me to help him set it up. 

He had heard about my South African experience, and had seen the difference in me after my first trip. He appreciated how much I had grown as a nurse, as a leader and as a person. 

He felt that my new-found confidence and experience was exactly what he wanted in a partner for his new adventure, and my experience of working with a range of animals would be a valuable asset. It was such a boost to my confidence. Although the new practice was still in development, my previous boss also offered me a job in the interim – so I received two job offers in one text.

'I had grown as a nurse, a leader and a person'

I returned to my training practice as a qualified nurse and got involved in overseeing the setting-up of the new practice. Within six months, it was ready to open. Now, one-and-a-half years into running the practice, we have a strong team of two vets and three VNs. 

I am head nurse, clinical coach to our training nurses and practice manager – which I achieved by the age of 23. 

It is thanks to the skills I learnt from my experience in South Africa that it has been possible to achieve what I have. 

Michaela Vinales

I still have a strong passion for wildlife. I am deeply involved in the conservation community and I return to Africa when I can. I have also travelled to Mauritius with Worldwide Experience to help with its biodiversity conservation programme. 

This year – Covid-19 allowing – I hope to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary for rescued, orphaned and injured wildlife in Namibia, and my future plans involve a trip to a rhino orphanage and to visit Antarctica. 

Michaela's CV

  • Trained as a vet nurse (VN) at Mark Nelson Vets in Croydon
  • Qualified as a VN from the Royal Veterinary College, London
  • Currently working at Elmfield Vets, Croydon

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