A bit wild: the work of a zoo vet

Justine Shotton zoo vet

I always knew I wanted to be a vet for as long as I could remember. I was interested in lots of other things too, like being a RAF jet pilot, but I knew that my passion and mission was to help animals, so during school I put all of my focus towards this goal. I got a Saturday job at a local vet practice, arranged work experience at my riding stables, bred my dog to experience the process of helping her to raise puppies and found a summer work experience position at the genetics lab in the Animal Health Trust near Newmarket to get some research experience.

I have always loved all animals and my long-term goal after experiencing life as a domestic animal vet was to work with wildlife in some way. I wasn’t sure whether that would be doing research work with wildlife in the field, or in a zoo as a clinical zoo vet, but after five years in practice and a Master’s degree in Wild Animal Health based at London Zoo, I was lucky enough to be offered a zoo job, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

Zoo vets need to be able to work well under pressure and stay calm in dangerous situations. You also need patience, dedication, excellent communication skills and exemplary people skills.

I now head the vet team at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, managing eight people in diverse roles including vets, vet nurses, nutritionists, behaviourists and animal registrars. My working week is a mix of clinical animal checks in the mornings as well as some procedures (health checks, blood samples, dentistry, etc) and then office work in the afternoons.

In zoos, there is a heavy focus on preventative health care, so generally zoo animals are fit and healthy and you see fewer health problems than you do in domestic farm animals and pets. We do a lot of health checks on animals before they are moved around the world as part of international conservation breeding programmes, and there is, of course, the occasional emergency to deal with. Our non-clinical work involves the development of animal training programmes, enclosure design, best practice management protocols, researching and writing scientific papers, teaching students and, for me, managing my team.

Justine Shotton

While there is a lot more office work for zoo vets compared to vets working with domestic species, there are still wonderful opportunities to work with some of the most incredible animals on the planet. You also get to contribute to the bigger picture of conservation and education of the public around conservation issues, and this can be extremely rewarding. 

Generally, the working hours as a zoo vet are very good; there is some on-call (emergency) work, but it’s less busy than in private practice. However, a downside is that most zoos are charities and so the salaries are very low compared to private practice. Many zoo vets will do additional weekend locum work in regular practices on top of their full-time jobs.

Working as a zoo vet can be very exhilarating – there is nothing like being the first person to approach a tiger after you’ve given it an anaesthetic to check its depth of anaesthesia! I love being able to contribute to international translocation and reintroduction projects for species that are extinct in the wild and see how they can re-establish. It’s also really rewarding getting to teach vet students about the role of zoo vets. Sometimes I miss being able to perform clinical examinations on my patients without having to anaesthetise them first, but we are working on more animal training to help us do this.

Justine Shotton

If you’re thinking of being a zoo vet, you need to get as much general experience as you can to get into vet school first – work on farms and at vet practices and aim to make a really good vet school application. You’ll need to build up your vet skills with domestic species first, but keep taking every opportunity to widen your experience with exotic and zoo species, and this will stand you in good stead to get a zoo job in the future.

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