ECZM residents discuss their experiences

Helle Hydeskov
Helle Hydeskov, ECZM resident in wildlife population health

I'm one of those people who, from the age of 8, knew they wanted to become a vet. However, my idea of my dream job has changed a few times since. Starting vet school in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2004, I wanted to become a small animal practitioner. Halfway through vet school I realised that vets could work exclusively with non-domesticated animals so I did a couple of externships at different zoos in Europe, which made me even more excited about working with wild animal species. Once I realised that it was possible to obtain postgraduate training in zoological medicine, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to specialise in order to get the best possible background in wild animal disease. Over the years, I have realised that I enjoy a mix of investigating the impact of diseases on free-living wildlife and field work – and that's why I chose a population-based approach to wildlife health.

After graduating in January 2010, I worked as an assistant vet at Copenhagen Zoo. During the year, I was fortunate to be able to do more research as part of the Danish giraffe cardiovascular research programme in South Africa. Following this, I was a civil veterinarian and team leader for World Vets, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), on two humanitarian missions with the US Military on its hospital ships. Joining the Continuing Promise mission in 2011, I worked in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and then I worked in south-east Asia with the Pacific Partnership deployment in 2012. These ships took me to 13 different countries where I experienced many aspects of veterinary medicine. The work ranged from setting up a small street clinic to dealing with notifiable diseases and One Health issues. Between these missions, I completed the American Veterinary Medical Association's Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates certification programme and the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination to increase my chances of obtaining an internship and residency in North America.

"Once I realised that it was possible to obtain postgraduate training in zoological medicine, I knew that was what I wanted to do"

I then worked for World Vets as the disaster response team leader after typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. Besides learning to apply emergency care in the field, it also taught me the importance of government organisations collaborating with NGOs. I completed a small animal rotating internship at the 404 Veterinary Emergency and Referral Hospital in Ontario, Canada, in 2014/15 to gain more clinical experience before returning to Continuing Promise for my third humanitarian mission.

In the end, it has turned out that my residency is much closer to home than I could ever have hoped. As the first resident in wildlife population health in the UK, I get to combine all my favourite aspects of veterinary medicine. I work with free-living wildlife and carry out disease investigations that fit into the bigger picture of ecosystem health, while collaborating with many European specialists. The Wildlife Epidemiology Group at the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL's) Institute of Zoology is leading several national surveillance programmes for wild animal species. For example, the Garden Wildlife Health programme monitors the health of British amphibians, reptiles, birds and hedgehogs, and identifies disease threats. The UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) coordinates the investigation of all cetaceans, marine turtles and basking sharks that strand around the UK coastline. The Disease Risk Analysis and Health Surveillance for Interventions develops methods to analyse the risk of disease that might result from interventions, such as reintroductions undertaken for conservation purposes. I assist with performing pathological investigations for all of these projects and, recently, I helped conduct health examinations of hazel dormice that are being reintroduced into the UK.

In June this year, I started my first residency research project, investigating herpesviruses in British hedgehogs. As a resident at the RVC, I have taken multiple modules of the MSc in Wild Animal Health as part of my Master of Veterinary Medicine programme. During the next academic year I plan to take a MSc in Veterinary Epidemiology module in animal health surveillance. Funded by the RVC and the RVC Animal Care Trust, I am a member of the RVC's Veterinary Epidemiology, Economics and Public Health group. My residency is unique and offers the best training to prepare me for a career as a veterinarian working in wildlife population health.

Stephanie Jayson, ECZM resident in zoo health management

Stephanie performing health check on flamingo
Setting off to Cambridge vet school freshers' week in September 2006, I would never have guessed that three years after graduation I would be living my dream as a veterinary resident with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Royal Veterinary College.

I write this sitting among lizards and hummingbirds on a vivid green mountainside on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, preparing to embark on a forest hike. Although most of my time as a resident is spent at the ZSL, for the next couple of weeks I have my field work hat on, working on a collaborative project to find the last remaining critically endangered mountain chicken frogs in Montserrat and collect samples of their wild diet so we can better understand how to provide for their nutritional needs in conservation breeding programmes.

This is just one of the many research projects I have been fortunate enough to get involved with since starting the residency eight months ago. I had not fully appreciated how the zoo environment forms a hub of conservation research until I got immersed in it. Behind the zoo's doors, keepers, vets, nurses, managers, conservationists and biologists are working together to further our knowledge of the most effective ways to protect endangered species and habitats and provide support to in situ conservation projects.

"I had not fully appreciated how the zoo environment forms a hub of conservation research until I got immersed in it"

Aside from research, my position involves being part of the clinical vet team at London and Whipsnade zoos. On a day-to-day basis this may involve treating species as diverse as spiders, seahorses, frogs, flamingos, lizards and lions. Before the residency, I spent two years in private practice, building up a caseload of exotic pets and zoo animal work, so that the leap to being a full-time zoo vet was not too far. However, I was still nervous the first time I was the primary clinician dealing with cases.

Working up clinical cases is similar in many ways to being in practice: zookeepers and animal managers take on a role akin to pet owners and decisions are made based on discussion with the animal management team. However, a striking difference for me has been the need to always consider the role of the individual animal within the wider population of its species. To ensure the continued survival of species, populations are managed at the international level by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria within European endangered species programmes and European stud books. Although animal welfare is always the first priority, management decisions must take the role of the individual within its broader species conservation programme into consideration.

"The residency provides teaching opportunities with the veterinary students on clinical rotation at the zoo"

Globally, there are currently five ECZM zoo health management residencies and we have regular tutorials to review topics in preparation for the ECZM diploma exams. Through the RVC, the residency also provides the opportunity to take part in a masters programme (MVetMed), through which I have so far taken modules in wild animal health and large animal medicine. This has taken me on some fantastic field trips and introduced me to inspirational conservationists from around the world.

As well as learning, the residency provides teaching opportunities with the veterinary students on clinical rotation at the zoo. I find that my tutorials with the students provide a two-way learning process: reviewing articles for journal club allows the students to learn about critical analysis of the scientific literature and the importance of evidence-based medicine, while it helps me to work my way through the residency reading list.

I realise now that veterinary medicine is a career not limited to the treatment of individual animals but one in which we can work on a global scale to conserve species. Although it may seem like a distant goal on that first day of freshers' week, it's never too early to start: those snippets of information about the diverse forms and functions of species from first-year comparative anatomy and physiology classes come in very handy when planning a rhino anaesthetic or a nutritional management programme for a critically endangered species of frog.


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