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Ten-minute chat
  1. John Lewis

Abstract

John Lewis has been a full-time zoo and wildlife vet for the past 27 years, working in a variety of zoo and field situations in an equally wide variety of countries. He is a partner in the nternational Zoo Veterinary Group and a co-founder of the UK charity Wildlife Vets International (www.wildlifevetsinternational.org), which provides specialist veterinary services to conservation projects. John's particular interests are the conservation of the larger cat species and anaesthesia of non-domestic animals.

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What made you become a wildlife vet?

I never had any ambition to become a domestic animal vet, and had initially intended studying zoology at university. However, a wise biology master guided me towards veterinary medicine. After then studying for a PhD in human oncology, an opportunity arose with the International Zoo Veterinary Group to work in a large Middle Eastern zoo. After that there was no going back.

What activities does your job involve you in?

I consider myself to have one of the best jobs in the world. In several zoos in the UK I provide general veterinary services, which cover the preventive and therapeutic care of a large range of species. Inevitably, veterinary work in zoos encompasses not only medicine, surgery, anaesthesia and other clinical disciplines; it also requires a good working knowledge of the natural history of each species. That alone means that it is impossible to become bored or jaded with work, because it is just too interesting.

I travel to many zoos in the UK and abroad to carry out anaesthesia on species that can be challenging – elephants, giraffe, hippos, walruses, large seals, sea lions, and so on. Many of these animals are being anaesthetised for protracted dental procedures, which take several hours, and, given the variation in the conditions under which we work, no two procedures are ever the same.

I am also involved in a number of field projects within tiger and leopard conservation that demand high-quality work under often unusual circumstances – always a challenge, and always enjoyable.

You recently returned from a remote part of eastern Russia tracking Amur leopards. What were you were you doing there?

Since 2006 I have spent a month or two in the far east of Russia every year, working with a team of biologists who catch and radiocollar some of the rarest cats in the world – Amur tigers and Amur leopards. This is necessary to understand more about the cats' behaviour and what is required for their conservation. My role is to ensure that the animals are anaesthetised safely, to carry out medical examinations in the field, to determine what diseases may be posing a threat to their existence, and to advise on the proposed reintroduction of the Amur leopard into areas where they no longer exist. I also teach young Russian wildlife vets as much as I can. The trapping, which is done from simple, tented base camps, is carried out without vehicles and everyone shares in all the activities involved. Although the work is inevitably somewhat physically demanding – and cold as the winter approaches – it has been a genuine pleasure to work within a team of such skilled and dedicated people. Last autumn we caught and collared two large male tigers, and however professional one has to be during such events, there is always a little time to reflect on how fabulous these animals are, and how impoverished we would all be if they became extinct in the wild.

What do you like about your job?

Working with so many different people, in so many different places, within so many different cultures and conditions, and being involved with some of the rarest and most wonderful creatures on the planet. Working with and learning from some of the best field biologists in the world is a particular pleasure.

What do you not like?

The constant pressure to raise money for conservation activities; not having enough time to document my work sufficiently; dealing with customs; carting endless boxes of equipment around the world; and the frustration of being a poor linguist.

Why is your job important?

As wildlife populations shrink (for a number of reasons), the threat from disease and the need for veterinary support increases markedly. Integrating veterinary work in zoos and in wild populations is becoming more and more relevant. Furthermore, the need for training the next generation of wildlife vets in range countries is crucial.

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What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

If you have a passion for wildlife, are willing to be persistent and patient, and are adaptable and capable of lateral thinking, there is nothing to stop you getting involved in wildlife medicine. Always remember that even the most experienced wildlife vets started as students. However, don't expect a 9 to 5 work pattern, and don't expect to earn a lot of money.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

‘There's no such thing as can't’ – my mother.

What was your proudest moment?

Apart from the birth of my son, no one incident stands out, but being sought to advise on the veterinary aspects of tiger and leopard conservation does give me special satisfaction.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

There have been too many embarrassing moments to list. However, as a student, I bought a hand-built Norton 750 cc motorbike from a specialist engineer in Huntingdon. Several hours later I had written it off, and returning it the next day requesting a rebuild must rank as one of my most embarrassing moments.

Certainly my saddest moment as a wildlife vet was losing a wild tiger under anaesthesia in Sumatra, but learning from our failures as well as our successes is part of the job.

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