I Want Your Job: Zoo vet

The call of the wild
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The Independent Online

Tai Strike, 37, is a zoo veterinary officer for the Zoological Society of London, working mainly in London Zoo and Whipsnade Wild Animal Park.

What do you actually do?

We take care of wild animal health, dealing with any problems or situations that arise - anything from checking a fish for parasites, to looking at a penguin's eye or castrating a zebra. There's a lot of preventative work - we give animals coming in or out of the collections a full health screening, take blood samples and x-rays, and check their teeth. We also train other vets and publish academic papers, and we have ties with different conservation projects - such as reintroducing little dormice into the wild and helping baby red kites to fledge.

What's a typical day at work like?

My day starts at 8am with a team meeting, where the whole zoo hospital team gets together. We might get calls from a keeper if an animal doesn't look well or has had a fight with another animal. We do operations in theatre, or out and about. If an animal is very large, we may have to transform its environment into an area that's safe to operate in. The most important thing is to make sure it's well-padded - otherwise, a big animal like a giraffe could hurt itself, when it falls asleep under anaesthetic.

What's the greatest thing about your job?

I grew up in South Africa surrounded by incredible wild animals, so I've always wanted to be a vet. It's such a stimulating job. You work outdoors, and there's always a new challenge, whether it's checking a red-kneed spider or giving a reptile a health screening. If you see something you haven't dealt with before, you can always ask the other vets.

What's tough about it?

You get to know the animals, so it can be sad when they die. Doing a procedure on a charismatic animal, like a gorilla, can be stressful because of the worry that things might go wrong. There's a strain associated with the fact that you are responsible for taking decisions with your team to ensure the animal's health and your team's safety.

What skills do you need to be a zoo vet?

You have to have excellent veterinary skills already. Working with domestic species in general veterinary practice is where you acquire core skills. You must be inquisitive and able to contrast and compare species; because we deal with so many different animals, you learn to think laterally and extrapolate from your knowledge about similar species. You need to be open-minded, willing to seek different ways of approaching things,.

What advice would you give someone who wanted your job?

I'd encourage them to get involved in voluntary wildlife work and to familiarise themselves with more unusual species, reptiles and birds - stuff you wouldn't normally cover in your general veterinary practice. It's a small field, but it is attainable; it's a question of getting your foot in the door, so you must be committed. You need a postgraduate degree in wildlife health and medicine, plus several years of general practice under your belt.

What's the salary and career path like?

Zoo and wildlife vets are not well paid. We're working for charities, so it's not equivalent to the higher salaries in private practice. A newly qualified veterinary surgeon might earn about £30,000 a year, and it takes a few years before you can work with exotic and wild animals. There's much more than just zoo work. You might work with different conservation projects or research different species in the wild.

For more information on degrees in veterinary medicine and in wild animal health, see the Royal Veterinary College, www.rvc.ac.uk; and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, www.rcvs.org.uk. Find out more about animal conservation from the Zoological Society of London, www.zsl.org.

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