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Pursuing zoo veterinary work via the USA
  1. Andrew Cushing


Andrew Cushing qualified from Liverpool in 2007, before spending time in mixed practice and then completing an 18-month zoological internship in Oregon, USA. He is currently based at Birch Heath, an exotic/wildlife clinic in Cheshire and starts a zoological residency at Cornell University, New York, in the summer

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NOWADAYS, many veterinary graduates are attracted to a career as a zoo vet, which provides the challenge of caring for a wide variety of species, minimum on-call responsibility, no frustrating clients and the chance to feel like you can really make a difference in the world of conservation. Zoo work is also romanticised on numerous television programmes, giving the impression of a perfect career choice. However, all is not as it may seem, as clients can be replaced by zoo politics, remuneration is generally lower than in comparable small animal positions, and the requirement to perform a variety of tasks in a range of different situations can result in you becoming a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

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Unfortunately, there is a shortage of training positions and employment opportunities in the UK zoo community, which, added to the increasing competition for places, means that UK graduates often need to look overseas for zoo work.

The USA is probably the first country graduates consider to provide adequate training in the zoo field. As with any speciality, this will usually entail gaining relevant experience, cementing basic veterinary knowledge and skills, internship(s), further qualifications and a residency.

Gaining experience should ideally begin in or before vet school, whether it is working on conservation projects, completing EMS at a zoo, or taking part in voluntary placements. However, ‘relevant experience’ should also include working with non-domestic species in private practice (as the majority of zoos have a reptile house or aviary), and in wildlife care or rehabilitation.

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Attending conferences is a great way to network with the zoo veterinary community, and if the opportunity arises to give a presentation, this is also an excellent skill to demonstrate. Membership of bodies such as the British Veterinary Zoological Society and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians offers discounted conference rates, along with access to papers and proceedings.

Employment opportunities often come about not from what you know, but who you know, so networking and keeping on good terms with people is vital, especially as the zoo vet world is small and there is good communication between zoological institutions.

In the USA, internships are a more common first job choice for graduates, compared with the UK. A job in mixed practice, either with or without zoo/exotic/wildlife work, really allows people to put the knowledge gained at vet school into practice. Any employment choice should aim to give a good balance between rolling in the muck and handling large animals and small animal medicine, surgery and client communication.

Regarding internship applications, the USA provides a ‘match system’, the Veterinary Internship and Residency Matching Program (VIRMP), within which you search for suitable programmes. You then send the VIRMP your application material, and they distribute it for you. Additionally, some internship positions are advertised separately, and must be applied for in the same way as any other advertised job.

There is commonly a requirement for USA licensure (meaning your veterinary degree must be accredited by the USA), and sometimes specific state licensure (an exam set by that particular state, which you can sit only with an accredited degree). To become accredited, seemingly the best way is to first sit the Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates written and practical examinations, followed by the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, which is neither a cheap nor quick process.

Residencies are often seen as a natural extension to an internship, and, if undertaken in an American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM) approved training facility, result in an eligibility to sit the ACZM board examinations. Applications are similar to the internships through the VIRMP, although again some are offered independently. They tend to be highly competitive, and often look for one or more internships along with experience in practice, conference presentations, publications in peer-reviewed journals and a demonstration of an absolute desire for the career. The UK does offer some residency positions, although they are limited, and competition for places is fierce.

Further qualifications can also be pursued in the UK, including the Masters in Wild Animal Health offered by the RVC. Completion of the RCVS CertAVP: Zoological Medicine would undoubtedly be an excellent addition to your CV, but requires a certain caseload of exotic species in order to be completed. Following this, European diplomas can be achieved in various disciplines, leading on to RCVS or European specialist status after completion of a number of targets, including publication in peer-reviewed journals, clinical experience, a residency programme or a fellowship.

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