Working with all creatures great and small

Sarah Chapman zoo animal specialist

I had wanted to be a vet since the age of four and after qualifying in 2000, I initially joined a real mixed practice in Lincolnshire. This allowed me to get solid clinical experience in mixed practice – it was really enjoyable as well as being my initial step towards being a zoo vet. My very first experience of zoo work was at Sewerby Hall zoo in Bridlington.

Over the next eight years I took every opportunity to build my relevant knowledge. As an official veterinarian, I learnt the importance of having a breadth of knowledge about animal diseases, animal husbandry and not to sign paperwork unless you’re happy with it.

Deciding to do a Masters was a big move for me as it meant a year out of practice and was extremely costly to undertake. I did it because I realised that having a postgraduate qualification was going to be vital in moving my career on. It also gave me the opportunity to meet and be taught by the world’s top zoo and exotics professionals.

It led on nicely to embarking on a certificate in zoo medicine and being part of the vet team at Woburn Safari Park. I especially enjoyed working with large exotic hoof stock (zebras, antelopes, rhinos and elephants) in an extensively managed environment. I also learnt an incredible amount from the head keeper Chris Freeman who remains an important mentor of mine. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.

"Working in mixed practice is a good way of building up relevant knowledge"

Finally I made it, I was a full-time zoo vet at Paignton zoo in Devon, where I was lucky to work with all creatures great and small – from dormice, sea horses and frogs to rhinos, giraffes, gorillas, orangutans and elephants. An opportunity to join Twycross Zoo came in 2011, where I achieved the diploma in zoo medicine.

What led you to change your career plan?

In 2016 I left full-time zoo work because my husband – an experienced zoo keeper – and I set up a zoo consultancy business. Julian is also an experienced tutor and lecturer on zoo animals and has an interest in environmental enrichment, exploring ways of enhancing the physiological wellbeing of captive animals.

Tell us about your current job

Consultancy work involves giving advice on all aspects of animal care in zoos. We run training courses that help practitioners gain confidence in dealing with birds and reptiles, or cover aspects of animal health in zoos.

I also support small zoos and colleges, and have a role overseeing veterinary work there. This involves routine site visits, giving advice on clinical and pathology cases and carrying out regular case reviews.

This year I became a zoo inspector, becoming part of the team that inspects zoos and makes recommendations to local authorities on the granting of licences. As a local authority inspector I ensure animal welfare legislation is complied with and I carry out ‘dangerous wild animals’ licensing for private owners of exotic cats and venomous species, among others. I also speak at conferences here and abroad, and carry out welfare assessments of zoos overseas.

Describe a typical working day

Every day is different! I could be preparing our next training course, inspecting premises holding exotic animals or those working under the new Animal Activities legislation (such as pet shops, exhibitors of animals or dog breeders), visiting clients, writing reports, presenting at conferences or running a training course.

I keep my clinical skills up to date by locuming at a small animal practice, and I volunteer for StreetVet in Birmingham. I do my best to go out with the team that provides free health care to homeless people’s pets at least once a month.

Inspecting an elephant's foot

What are the best things about your job?

The variety, but ultimately what I do is help to promote and improve good animal welfare.

…and the challenges?

Sometimes time, but usually money! We would love to provide training and support around the world on aspects of animal husbandry, veterinary care, enrichment and animal training, but funding to achieve this is hard to come by. We often get asked for help overseas, but usually need to fund it ourselves.

What skills have you acquired during your career?

The skills you learn in mixed practice are really valuable – when you’re in sole charge you have to think on your feet and make decisions. I’ve benefited from gaining communication skills, being able to apply basic veterinary principles within a zoo environment and learnt how to manage people (which was a steep learning curve).

Tell us about a career highlight

Helping to save the life of a baby gorilla made me realise the importance of individuals in a population of endangered species. Individual welfare is key and this shouldn’t be compromised.

We must strive for optimal welfare for every animal – whether in a zoo, sanctuary, private collection or kept as a pet.

Who has been your biggest inspiration and why?

Primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey never gave up fighting for mountain gorillas, which ultimately cost her her life. Without her work, and the work of others, this species would have become extinct. Although their population is slowly increasing, they are still at risk – as are so many species.

"It’s people who make things happen for animals"

We need to be aware of the ways our decisions impact on the environment, such as buying products without palm oil or reducing our use of single-use plastics.

What are your aspirations?

To build our consultancy business – continuing to teach best practice to zoo and vet professionals and provide them with support and advice. This will ultimately improve the care animals receive and have a positive effect on their welfare.

How do you achieve a good work-life balance?

By trying to be as organised as possible – I am a list person. Working in a busy mixed practice teaches you to be organised and to work as efficiently as possible. Our dogs are my reason to finish work on time and get out for a walk – whatever the weather. I also have lots of vet friends all over the UK – whenever there’s a chance to get together, we grab it.

Alongside dog walking, I enjoy dog agility and cooking – especially curry.

Would you recommend your job to a school leaver?

You need to make the job work for you, so that you get to do the things you enjoy. Being a vet is challenging, but when you work hard for any animal and their keeper/owner, you will see the benefits to them and you. Get experience so that you have options.

What advice would you give your younger self?

No experience is wasted. Meeting people through work is as important as the animals – it’s people who make things happen for animals.

Sarah's CV

  • Graduated from Edinburgh

  • Mixed practice in Lincolnshire then East Yorkshire

  • Veterinary nursing assessment and training qualification

  • Official veterinarian, APHA

  • Locum work before doing a master’s degree in wild animal health with the Royal Veterinary College and the Zoological Society of London

  • RCVS Certificate in zoo medicine while at Scott Vet Clinic, Bedford, and part of vet team for Woburn Safari Park

  • Full-time zoo vet at Paignton Zoo and Living Coasts, Devon

  • Vet adviser for Bongo Taxon Adviser Group and UK Elephant Focus Group

  • Head of veterinary services, Twycross Zoo and honorary professor in zoological medicine at the University of Nottingham

  • RCVS Diploma in zoo medicine

  • Head of the health sub-group of the UK Elephant Welfare Group

  • RCVS-recognised specialist in zoo and wildlife medicine

  • Co-director, Chapman Zoo Consultancy

  • Qualified zoo inspector and inspector for local authorities (Animal Welfare, Animal Activities and Dangerous Wild Animal Licensing)

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