Developing an exotics interest

Fabian Rivers, exotic animal vet

My desire to pursue a vet career started in the same way as it did for many in this profession. You spend time around animals and you enjoy their company; you get a best friend and you feel a sense of harmony around animals. It just feels right. 

I always had that natural affinity to animals. The closest anyone in my family came to working in a medical field was my uncle. He was, and still is, a dentist but he was never a big animal person. My aunt, however, loved cats, and I grew up with cats, and later dogs, in my own home.

To begin with, I had no real conception of what being ‘a vet’ meant. Time passed and my interest continued to grow. It’s odd to grow into something before you really know what it is you are growing into. 

However, becoming a vet was not easy. Many younger vets particularly will tell you of the seemingly endless hurdles they encountered on the way to getting to where they are now. Work experience (unpaid), nepotism (in various amounts), and definitely a touch of luck, all helped us build our portfolios for vet school. I found it a tough time truthfully. My Mom was very proactive in helping me get work experience and facilitated a lot of my earlier opportunities. I am eternally grateful for that. 

It was also tough because I experienced various forms of overt and covert racism. My determination to be a vet, my race and my cultural background was a source of bemusement and discussion among many people. It would have been very easy to give up on my dream, but I was very blessed to have the family I did around me.

At a young age, I had access to some more ‘exotic’ animals – rats and stick insects – and was very interested in snakes and lizards. When I was at university, however, I initially fell in love with anatomy and was very much dedicated to becoming a specialist in anatomy or surgery. Partly I thought that starting out in exotics practice would be impossible, and partly I thought maybe I'd fall into it later in life, and so I ruled it out entirely. That all changed when I took an exotics placement during my studies. I had to do two weeks in a practice away from the university and this was how I found the clinic where I work today. I am incredibly lucky to work at one of the two exotics-centric practices in Birmingham and it’s pretty amazing that I started my professional career doing something that I had thought impossible. 

With exotics work, often the greatest challenges are centred around owners! People are such enthusiasts about their animals. The emphasis is consequently on you to be abreast of many different animals concurrently, and that’s quite a task. Sometimes owners know more than you about a particular species, and so you find yourself learning novel kernels of information regularly. 

I feel exotics practice is very much aligned with why vet medicine in general is so engaging. There is an art to it, which you can learn, and there’s also a genuine desire to want to be better for your patients. You don’t need extra qualifications to be an exotics vet, but it does often help. Books can provide valuable insight and support for those who may not have another exotics vet in their peer group. There are also many courses and CPD opportunities that you can do too but with commitment to learning there is no one way to be a part of the community. I am currently undertaking a postgraduate certificate in exotics practice but I've learnt loads from people who have never taken any formal extra qualifications.

Fabian Rivers, exotics vet

I absolutely love exotics practice. I am a self-professed novelty junkie. I’m driven by variety. Whatever animal is presented, I find it really energising. I never want to stop learning and being curious about life and exotics practice, and I’m lucky to have a never-ending list of opportunities to satiate this curiosity. My day can be a macaw, then a cat, then a rat, then a hawk, then a monitor lizard and then a bearded dragon – and then a dog, then an axolotl and then a duck! When I actually get the time to appreciate what I do for a living, it feels like a gift.

I have found that you can do amazing things with tiny budgets, and this is a cornerstone of working with many exotic animals. Extrapolation, inference, and trying things that may not have been researched in a particular species, are all daily occurrences. This brings in an element of mystery, but also excitement, and shows why sharing information is central to being a good practitioner in this field.

For those who want advice on becoming a wildlife or exotics vet, I’d say that, like many moves in life, you need to find the right opportunity. But you also need to realise that learning is a quality, not an activity, and you don’t need a particular qualification to be a great exotics vet. Nor do you need a practice that specialises in exotic animals to be able to provide great care. So seize every opportunity to see exotics, believe in yourself and continue to do what you can. You will never know what you can achieve unless you try.

You can find Fabian @DreadyVet

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