A look at the career of a wildlife and exotics vet

Bev Panto
Throughout university I maintained an interest in all things wild. Although I spent a year at Liverpool studying for an intercalated degree in veterinary conservation medicine, I still didn't really know which direction my career was headed in. For my final-year elective project, I decided to go to Borneo to investigate the normal skin commensals in juvenile orangutans in a rehabilitation centre. I had the most incredible time working with the vets and rehabilitation staff at the centre, and teaching the young orangutans to build nests and forage. It was a dream come true, and cemented my ambition to work with wildlife in one capacity or another. On my way back from Borneo, I stopped for a month in Thailand to volunteer at a neutering clinic on Koh Tao. The trip reignited my passion for travel, and I have since volunteered on an almost annual basis for neutering campaigns and charity clinics all over the world.

Working on new educational initiative

When I qualified from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in 2009, I was still unsure what my next step would be and was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to work on a new educational initiative called ‘Veterinary Students as Global Citizens’. I was able to build on my experiences working overseas and travelled to East Africa to explore different perspectives on global veterinary issues. As part of an international development educational initiative, I developed a reciprocal veterinary teaching programme in Kenya and Tanzania, with the RVC. I also worked alongside local vets and VetAid, an East African charity providing veterinary care and support in rural East Africa, particularly working with the Masai tribespeople to explore some of the issues and challenges faced by vets and farmers in the region. I was surrounded by incredible African wildlife, met some wonderful, dedicated vets and stock keepers, and it was a fascinating insight into another world – all while working on ‘African time’.

Helping to develop Wikivet

During this period, I was also the ‘Wikimaster’ of WikiVet, collaborating with four other UK vet schools to develop the resource, which is used worldwide today. Global perspectives and international development teaching now forms a core part of the curriculum at the RVC, and is something I'm incredibly proud to have been a part of. However, passionate as I was about the importance of this teaching, I hadn't done any significant clinical veterinary work since graduating and, naturally, after six years of clinical training, I soon felt the need to get a grounding in clinical veterinary practice.

Returning to practice in the UK

When I returned to the UK, I joined a busy, friendly, small animal practice in Horsham. It was the perfect place to develop my clinical skills. I loved the team I worked with, and the variety of the work, and quickly became responsible for all of the exotics and wildlife patients. I still had a niggling need to see more small furry, feathered and spiky creatures though, so I started volunteering regularly at Wildlife Aid – a large wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre – where I found a veterinary niche that I was truly passionate about. It soon became clear that many veterinary practices were not well equipped to deal with British wildlife, and some of the cases that I saw referred to Wildlife Aid, even as a relatively inexperienced wildlife vet, were quite upsetting to see.

Wildlife education

There was only so much I could do for these animals, having a full-time job ‘on the side’, and I realised that helping to train and educate students, as well as qualified vets and nurses in practice, was a more efficient way of improving the welfare of British wildlife casualties. I started in my own backyard, providing training for the vets and nurses in my own practice, and quickly saw the change in their approach to species they were less familiar with. They became more confident and interested in seeing and treating these patients as well, and we made quite a name for ourselves in the local area as a wildlife-friendly practice.

Wildlife centre

When the opportunity came up to work with wildlife full time, I jumped at the chance, and I took my partner, cat and tropical fish to Cheshire to start my new life as an RSPCA wildlife vet at Stapeley Grange. I had no real idea what a huge undertaking this was...to go from working at a small wildlife hospital once a week to being responsible for the veterinary care of over 6500 animals per year – in addition to training staff, working with RSPCA inspectors and supporting other wildlife centres in the area. It was a steep learning curve to say the least. I started work in spring, the busiest time in a wildlife centre's year, and it was a true baptism of fire. I was seeing new species on an almost weekly basis, and every day was seeing conditions for the first time. The wildlife centre at Stapeley takes about 50% of its annual caseload between April and June, so there wasn't much time to find my feet.

Sharing knowledge - running UK's first wildlife rotation

With a huge caseload, the problem of ineffective wildlife triage in veterinary practice was magnified and I again realised that it wasn't enough just to treat the animals that came through our door; we also had a responsibility to try to improve the welfare and veterinary care of those animals that didn't come anywhere near us. I still had good connections with Liverpool university and my arrival at Stapeley was quite timely, as the university was looking to increase its exotics clinical teaching. We soon started discussing the potential for introducing wildlife teaching into the curriculum.

"When the opportunity came up to work with wildlife full time, I jumped at the chance"

One thing led to another and, before I knew it, I was running the UK's first clinical wildlife rotation. This is a now compulsory part of Liverpool vet students' final year training, and they spend a week with us in the hospital, learning the principles of triage and wildlife medicine and getting lots of hands-on clinical practice.

Each week, we deliver small group seminars, lectures and practical training sessions with a group of students. We cover topics such as identification, anatomy, triage, diagnostics, relevant legislation, common conditions and the health and safety implications of working with wildlife and exotic animals.

Sadly, the reality of wildlife work means that we end up with a lot of cadavers, but we take advantage of these and the students participate in wet labs, practising skills such as bandaging, venepuncture, crop tubing, endotracheal tube placement, intraosseous catheter placement and endoscopy, and learning the anatomy of less familiar species.

The students spend the rest of their time working alongside the vets in the hospital learning radiology, anaesthesia, surgery and other important skills. They also learn how to do simple but invaluable in-house laboratory diagnostics such as faecal parasite analysis, blood smears and fungal cultures, as well as gross postmortem examination of a range of species.

The students are thrilled to get so much hands-on clinical experience and, invariably, their feedback reveals that they feel much more equipped and prepared to effectively triage and treat wildlife in practice after spending a week with us.

"I realised that helping to train and educate students, as well as qualified vets and nurses in practice, was a more efficient way of improving the welfare of British wildlife casualties"

On top of the student rotation, I have also introduced a veterinary internship programme for qualified vets who are keen to develop their knowledge and experience with British wildlife. We have so far had 11 veterinary interns join us from all over Europe, many of whom have gone on to find full-time employment with wildlife or exotics. There is a paucity of postgraduate training in wildlife medicine and our internship is a great opportunity for vets to get hands-on wildlife training, and also to support Stapeley's veterinary team and the university teaching.

Fast-forward three years and the student rotation programme is going from strength to strength. We have introduced more teaching of domestic exotic species, collaborating with local rabbit and ferret rescue centres, and I have acquired a resident corn snake, Kevin, who came in as a stray and now helps students to get to grips with the clinical examination of reptiles.

We also run a three-week elective for students who are particularly interested in learning more about wildlife and exotic species, and extend this teaching to falconry and zoo species.

Wildlife CDP courses

As well as student teaching, I lead wildlife CPD courses for vets and VNs wherever possible. I have spoken at a number of conferences and CPD events for a range of veterinary societies, including the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, the Association of Charity Vets, the British Veterinary Zoological Society and the British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, and I've run wildlife training for staff at the Jersey Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I also run a number of workshops at Stapeley Grange to provide essential practical wildlife training for vets and nurses from all over the country who come into contact with wildlife through their work in general practice.

"No two days are the same, and I never know what is going to come through the doors next"

From an RSPCA perspective, my daily work is still very much focused on triaging and treating the wildlife patients that are referred to us from all over the north of England and Wales. I am also involved in developing protocols to help other RSPCA branches manage some of the more exotic species that may be presented to them, as well as supporting the charity's inspectors, being called out to provide field support in outbreaks of disease in wildlife as well as cases involving cruelty and neglect. I work closely with a local ferret rescue, and provide advice and run clinics for a local community of ferret keepers.

No two days are the same, and I never know what is going to come through the doors next – wild animals don't make appointments! Some of the more unusual species I have treated are spoonbills, raccoon dogs and rare sea turtles – with adult seals and otters probably being two of the most challenging species to manage.

I love the diversity of my job; I could be operating on a tiny hoglet or an injured bat and then treating a 200 kg grey seal or a slow worm. I particularly enjoy the need to improvise and adapt my equipment and techniques to such a range of species, and the unique challenges of working with such an eclectic mix of patients.

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