Kwame knew that something was up. He had been trapped alone in an internal holding area between his exhibits, and he didn’t like it. Sure, sometimes this happened and he got rewarded with tasty treats to enjoy all by himself. But those positive experiences didn’t quite erase his suspicions.
Outside the National Zoo’s Great Ape House, Dr. Carlos Sanchez checked his equipment one more time. The dart contained just the right combination of anesthetic drugs. He verified the distance through a tiny window in the door and pictured the dart sailing straight into Kwame’s muscled thigh.
I stood behind Dr. Sanchez in the basement access stairwell, along with another veterinarian, a vet tech, and one of the gorilla keepers. Out of sight on the other side of the exhibit, a third veterinarian and the rest of the keeper staff stood ready. Every medical intervention with these high-profile animals is taken extremely seriously.
Dr. Sanchez pushed the door open, slowly and steadily, and lifted the dart gun up to his eye. Luck was with us so far: Kwame didn’t seem to notice and was still moving warily through his room.
Pfffwoot! And success! The dart had buried itself up to the hub right in the thickest part of Kwame’s gluteus maximus. Within seconds, he reached around and pulled it out, throwing it angrily at the opposite wall. But he was too late.
We stood silently and watched as the teenaged blackback western lowland gorilla started to stagger slightly and then curled up on his side. Another minute and he was completely out, breathing easily and ready for his annual exam.
How does that sound for an afternoon’s work? This was just one of many incredible similar experiences I got to participate in during my six-week veterinary externship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park.
Highlights of the Experience
I was there during one of the female panda Mei Xiang’s potential pregnancies, so this meant observing several ultrasounds and blood draws of what unfortunately turned out to be yet another false alarm.
We did a full work-up at the veterinary hospital on a giant salamander that had stopped eating. I honestly felt like I was in some science-fiction alien movie as we anesthetized and took biopsies from this slippery aquatic beast under the bright lights of the ultra-modern surgical suite.
I was especially proud of myself one early morning when I successfully got a blood sample from one of the feisty and adorable Asian short-clawed otters. Why was I so proud, you might ask? This was after the veterinary resident and vet tech had already tried and failed!
Ultrasounds on elephant joints with an equine radiologist. Enemas and manual fecal extraction of an obstipated gibbon. An echocardiogram with a veterinary cardiologist to evaluate silverback Baraka for early heart failure. Pre-shipment exam on a baby giant aardvark. The list goes on and on.
It was a really cool experience.
So You Want to Be a Zoo Vet?
Zoo veterinarians have one of the most interesting and challenging jobs out there. Sure, most vets get to treat multiple species in the regular course of their work. If we’re honest, though, the vast majority of us spend 99% of our time with only two. Well, make that three, if you count all the human owners we interact with…
I have a t-shirt from vet school that says, “REAL doctors treat more than one species.” A little bitter about being asked one too many times why I didn’t just become a real doctor, maybe?! But I love it. And zoo vets can claim that title more honestly than the rest of us.
Most zoo veterinarians I’ve met and worked with also have a great interest in wildlife conservation, and their zoo jobs often allow them to get involved in field research around the world. Many of them actually transition between these areas quite regularly.
One example of this can be found by looking at the resumes of the last few lead veterinarians for one of my all-time favorite organizations, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Most of them have come from zoo jobs and then gone back to that world after a few years traipsing through the jungle in central Africa.
Enough already? You’re convinced?
Well there’s also some bad news. First, the jobs are somewhat few and far between. There are a limited number of quality zoos in the U.S. and around the world, and most of them have only a few veterinarians on staff. Second, it is quite competitive to get accepted into a zoo residency program, even though this means three years of very long hours for very little pay. And finally, the salary you can expect after all these years of training is usually not quite what you could earn as a regular small animal clinician. All that said, you have to really be passionate and disciplined to make this dream a reality.
Setting Up Your Own Zoo Externship
Fortunately for you, getting your own little taste of life as a zoo veterinarian should not be too difficult. There are three great sources of information about available externships (also called preceptorships), and these resources have the links or details you’ll need to submit your applications. The most comprehensive is the list of veterinary externship opportunities from the American College of Zoo Veterinarians (ACZV). The AVMA’s Student Externship Locator also maintains a pretty good list. And the American College of Wildlife Veterinarians also has a page of jobs and training opportunities that are more wildlife-focused.
Due to the demand for these opportunities, you’ll need to plan far in advance and may even have to apply before you know your clinical rotation schedule for third and fourth year. You will also have a hard time finding any way to fund this type of training, outside of your own hard-earned savings or student loan proceeds. It’s possible that you could turn the experience into a research project that might be funded, but this would require some serious creativity on your part.
Almost all of these opportunities are open to veterinary students from around the world. I know of several non-American students who have successfully applied for and completed externships at some of the most competitive zoos.
There are also opportunities for pre-vet students at almost all these zoos. You probably won’t be working closely with the veterinarians, but you can get involved in both the research and animal care side of things. These types of experiences will definitely be appreciated by vet school admissions committees! As an example, here are the National Zoo’s other student internship opportunities.
Back to Kwame’s Story
“Okay, let’s move!” Dr. Sanchez’s words set the team in action, and within minutes Kwame was strapped to a stretcher and being carried out another entrance to a waiting vehicle for his short trip to the veterinary hospital. I sat in the back, monitoring his vital signs while peering out the tinted rear windows of the custom-designed ambulance.
I used to be one of those kids, I thought. The awe and wonder was clear on their faces as they watched us go by. And now I’m the one on the inside, doing my little part to keep these amazing animals around for the next generation.
It was just a brief taste, and now I’ve been out of that world for a few years again. Will I make it back on the inside? That remains to be seen.
Have you had any experiences where you felt, “This is what I was made to do!” What are you willing to sacrifice to make it happen?