Zoo Animal Medicine… Why You SHOULD Do It and How to Start.

This is going to be a blog post unlike any other that you will ever read in regard to zoo animal medicine.

I am going to sit here and tell you why you SHOULD be a zoo animal vet.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of cons to pursuing zoo animal medicine and you really need to think about what you want your lifestyle to look like when you are done with school.  But, if you don’t even try, will you always look back with regret? Will you question your career choice as you are slaving away at a small animal clinic? Why did you get involved in veterinary medicine in the first place? These are things you seriously need to ask yourself. And if you don’t know the answer, then FIND out. Get out there and volunteer, do something outside of your comfort zone, and reach out to people who have jobs that you would be interested in doing.

If you have decided, “Yes, this is my passion! I only want to work with exotic/zoo animals!” then you are in luck because you are one of the few of us who actually has narrowed in on what they want to do with their life. In this post, I will break down how to set yourself up for a career in zoo animal medicine. I want to say before-hand that this comes from personal experience and there are no guarantees! Most zoo veterinarians have told me that getting a job is pure luck! They were in the right place at the right time. During my vet school interviews, I was asked over and over again if I knew the job outlook for zoo veterinarians. Do you know what my response was? “Well, someone has to do it, don’t they?” And I am not kidding when I say that this is 100% TRUE. 50 years ago, college students were told not even to apply to veterinary school because they wouldn’t be accepted. But some people were accepted, weren’t they? So, why not you?

I will go ahead and break this down by stage in your academic career:

High School – I would set yourself up by taking advanced level science courses.  Try to take Honor’s, AP, IB courses and get accepted to your IN STATE university (or any school you get a scholarship to), preferably a university with a pre-vet program and/or veterinary school. I stress the in-state university because veterinary school in the United States is so expensive and student loans really add up (considering they start collecting interest from day 1!). When I was looking at colleges, I wanted to get as far away from Georgia as possible, so I understand the appeal of an out-of-state university. Luckily, I decided to stay at my in-state university (UGA) and I walked away from college with zero debt (Side note: Georgia is unusual because there is a HOPE scholarship program that pays for all of your tuition if you have a certain GPA and standardized test score from high school). If you are interested in gaining experience, many clinics hire high schoolers to work after school. You could also discuss with your high school a potential veterinary internship that would allow you to work more often. Many high school students can gain employment working at a kennel/veterinary clinic and build relationships with the veterinarians who work there. Building a network is key if you want to pursue veterinary medicine. If you are looking for exotics experience, many zoos and aquaria have teen volunteer programs and summer internships. Look into wildlife rehabilitation facilities in your area and see if you can get involved somehow as well!

College – Make good grades! If you want to go to veterinary school right when you graduate, you need to be the perfect package.  High GPA, high GRE, a lot of diverse animal experience. Use your summers wisely and gain experience! Do an internship at a zoo or aquarium. Rescue sea turtles in Florida or do an international veterinary trip. DO RESEARCH AT YOUR UNIVERSITY (vet schools love research). Click here to learn more about how to find research opportunities at your school.  Work at a veterinary clinic (small, large, exotic – it doesn’t matter). While you are at work, ask lots of questions and be engaged. Take every opportunity to meet an exotic animal veterinarian and get their contact information. Email them! Ask your questions and get to know what their lifestyle is like! Most are very willing to help in any way they can. See my other blog post My Top Ten Tips for Getting Into Veterinary School for more specifics in regard to applying to veterinary school. And if you don’t get accepted your first, second, or third time applying, you are in luck because you can take…

A Gap Year – My favorite! 

Spend this time wisely and BUILD CONNECTIONS.  One of my first “field trips” in veterinary school was to Zoo Atlanta and it was amazing to walk in and know so many people who work there through an internship I did two years before. I had kept in contact with the zookeepers and veterinarians that I worked with and I was able to rekindle those relationships, but this time as a veterinary student.  It is also important if you decide to take a gap year to develop hobbies and coping skills. Veterinary school is so stressful and I feel like many students who have taken time off perform better because they have hobbies outside of studying to fall back on (also it is a plus because you can talk about it during your interviews).  Most important, take advantage of this time and be happy!

Veterinary School

From what I can tell so far, there are many paths to working with zoo animals after you are accepted into veterinary school. You can go straight out and work in exotic animal medicine in private practice and sit for the boards after 6 years (DACZM), or do a rotating internship, then an exotic specialty internship, THEN apply for a residency. Many will have to do a third internship or fellowship before they actually are offered a residency position. And some never complete a residency! It is really all up in the air most of the time when you are applying to work with exotics. The most important thing is to stay positive, keep your eye on your goal, and listen to your heart. Even if you don’t know for sure that you want to work with zoo animals, keep doing things that make you happy and you will find your way.  Stay open-minded and optimistic, connect with people, ask questions, be respectful and you will go very far.

The jobs in zoo animal medicine are few are far between, so it is important to be realistic and have a plan.  Other specialties, such as Ophthalmology and Lab Animal Medicine, also allow you to work with a wide variety of species while earning a very good salary.  As a zoo animal veterinarian, you will mostly be a general practice vet for a large “herd” of animals.  It is important to pay attention when people discuss “herd health” because that is what you are going to be focused on the majority of time.  If you choose to pursue zoo animal medicine, you might end up at a zoo, an aquarium, a wildlife sanctuary, or potentially working as a wildlife vet for the government.  Alternatively, you could work in private practice as an exotic animal veterinarian and be extremely happy.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. Feel free to reach out if you have specific questions. You have the power to manifest your own reality. The fear of failure will always hold you back from achieving your dreams. Let go of that fear and move forward. Live the life you have always wanted to live. I believe in you and so should you!


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