How to become an exotic veterinary nurse

Emma Whitlock

I remember the first time that I realised I wanted to be a veterinary nurse; it was while undertaking school work experience in a local veterinary practice aged 15. I had just watched my first surgery on a patient and, although I found it enthralling, it was the patient's aftercare that really interested me. The hands-on nursing that I witnessed in that first (excellent) veterinary practice sealed my career choice forever.

Discovering a love of exotics and wildlife

As soon as I was old enough, I volunteered at St Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital – one of Europe's biggest and busiest wildlife centres. There I gained invaluable hands-on experience, and I think the experience probably set me up for life. Volunteering also showed my desire and genuine ambition to work within this field, something that many of my employers since have told me helped in securing a paid position. It was while working there that I realised I wanted to work as a veterinary nurse within the field of exotics and wildlife.

Veterinary educational path

I progressed from volunteering with wildlife to college to undertake a two-year BTEC National Diploma in Animal Care at Berkshire College of Agriculture (a viable route into university). It was during lengthy periods of work experience as part of my BTEC course that I started to make contacts within this sector of the industry.

"Volunteering showed my desire and genuine ambition to work within this field"

I was careful to choose placements in zoological institutions and wildlife settings (including Woburn Safari Park, Whipsnade Zoo, the Monkey Sanctuary Trust in Looe and St Tiggywinkles) so that I could learn as much, and meet as many people, as possible. While studying, I worked within the college's animal unit to oversee student hand-ling and husbandry of its exotic collection. Upon completing my BTEC qualification I was offered a choice of places at university in a variety of subjects including zoology and marine biology.

I chose, however, to study veterinary nursing at Hartpury College in Gloucester because it offered the most diverse subject range and had the best facilities for hands-on practical work. During my four-year degree, I took every subject that reflected my desire to work within my chosen field, and I relished every opportunity to gain practical experience with novel species, including assisting with bird ringing for the British Trust for Ornithology at a number of sites of special scientific interest in Gloucestershire. I completed my final-year dissertation on analgesia of exotics and graduated from university with a BSc (Hons) degree in veterinary nursing science in 2004.

Working at Whipsnade Zoo

Shortly after graduating – while I was gaining valuable postqualification experience in mixed veterinary practice – I was offered the position of veterinary nurse at the Zoological Society of London's Whipsnade Zoo. I loved my role at the zoo because it was so diverse, and because there was no such thing as routine!

lion health check
Emma describes the anaesthesia of different species as both a challenging and stressful part of her role as a VN at Whipsnade

The vet department at Whipsnade is incredibly well set up and staffed, and I really enjoyed having the facilities and equipment that many charities aren't so fortunate to enjoy. I relished the opportunity to work with so many species and learn about their husbandry and nutritional requirements from my colleagues and the keepers, and to perform surgery out in the field. Anaesthesia of so many different species was a challenging (and sometimes stressful) part of the job, and it took a lot of successful anaesthesias and procedures before I really felt confident and comfortable in my role.

Moving into academia 

I stayed at the zoo for five years before my family situation changed (I had a baby) and we then relocated to another part of the UK. I took up a position as programme leader for the degree in veterinary nursing science. I enjoyed lecturing and teaching practical nursing skills – particularly because my role involved working with a variety of nursing disciplines and programmes (small animal and equine as well as higher and further education). Academia is hardcore, though, and I have ultimate respect for those who work in it – it's not all coffee and summer holidays as some people like to suggest! It was there that I learned a more holistic approach to nursing, and where everything that I had learned previously finally came together.

Avian and exotic practice

From teaching, I moved into my current position as senior avian and exotic nurse at Great Western Exotics, in the multidisciplinary Vets Now Referrals hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire. I thoroughly enjoy my role here as it offers the opportunity to get hands-on with complicated exotic cases using cutting-edge techniques.

"I strive to encourage colleagues within the industry to make a difference to the exotics that are seen and treated"

Our caseload is a mixture of first-opinion and referral cases, as well as emergency out-of-hours (we offer a specialist-led 24-hour service to existing clients and referring vets). I have learned more here than anywhere, and we have outstanding equipment and facilities, including a visiting MRI scanner, an in-house CT scanner, fluoroscopy, digital radiography, endoscopy, an ultrasound suite and dedicated surgical theatres. The hospital is extremely well set up (we have separate exotic isolation, predator and prey wards that are separate from the small animal department, and every cage is individually ventilated and thermostatically heated), which makes dealing with demanding patients a breeze.

We see a varied caseload of mammals, reptiles and, most notably, birds (working for one of the world's most eminent avian vets has its advantages), and I have learned an inordinate amount from my boss, Neil Forbes, and the residents and interns who study with us. As senior nurse I have a lot of organising to do, but my role is still clinical, which is something I wouldn't want to change. I enjoy publishing and lecturing more now – I strive to encourage colleagues within the industry to make a difference to the exotics that are seen and treated, and highlight that things can be done well in any veterinary practice setting.

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