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Ten-minute chat
  1. Cracknell Johnathan


Jonathan Cracknell is a zoological and wildlife vet with a strong interest in welfare and anaesthesia. He is Director of Animal Operations at Longleat Safari and Adventure Park; he also provides capacity and capability support for welfare charities internationally – from Europe to Indonesia. He has worked with a variety of species, but is best known for his work with bears in China and India, as well as his contributions to elephant infectious disease management, including elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus and tuberculosis.

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Were you always interested in zoo animals and wildlife?

I've always been interested in working with the wilder species that challenge the veterinary profession, and I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work on the projects that I have. It is a difficult and competitive field to get into and I freely admit that I have been very lucky. Starting at school I was a voluntary keeper at Chester Zoo and throughout veterinary school I volunteered to work alongside some amazing people, building the network that allowed me to get to where I am now.

Do you specialise in one area?

Zoological and wildlife vets are considered to be the ultimate generalist as we have a wide range of knowledge over a diverse range of taxonomic groups. Within the discipline we often become specialised simply through exposure to a larger number of cases than our colleagues; in my case that would be zoo and wildlife anaesthesia (building on my skills from my anaesthesia residency at the Animal Health Trust), elephant medicine and bear rehabilitation. However, I can equally turn my hand to avian orthopaedics or fish surgery if required.

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What does your job involve?

The joy of zoo and wildlife medicine is the variety of cases and species that you see on a daily basis. There is not really a standard day: one day I could be in India helping manage tuberculosis preventative medicine strategies, the next I could be training, via telemedicine, local veterinarians in Beirut in captive primate management. I see a wide variety of captive and wild wildlife. There is a lot of paperwork too though, so it's not all glamorous.

What's the best thing about your job?

Probably the privilege of getting to find things, even simply anatomical features, that no-one has even noted before.

. . . and the worst bit?

Thinking you've discovered something new, not in the current literature, only to find that Sir Richard Owen had already discovered it in 1880.

Why is your job important?

To me? Simply because I love doing what I do. For the charities? I provide a service that allows the standards of welfare to be raised for the animals in their care while improving preventative and reactive medicine programmes in line with prudent ethical and financial resource use. For the captive animals I currently look after? I ensure that they are catered for in line with best current practice.

What advice would you give someone considering a similar career?

That's a difficult one. I've seen many clinicians, many much better then me, have no luck in this field. It's about being in the right place at the right time and making a niche for yourself. I considered anaesthesia was a sensible route to go down and this proved to be right for me. There are a lot of opportunities out there and you have to be able to be in a position to be able to run with them and throw caution to the wind sometimes. Emerging infectious diseases and epidemiology is probably the direction I would look to if I was starting all of this again.

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

There has never been one piece of advice that I could single out as being the best; however, I would say that two individuals stand out in my training in the discipline of zoological and wildlife medicine. They taught me the skills and art needed when considering the wildlife patient: Alistair Lawrie and Andrew Routh, in my opinion, are two of the best and most influential clinicians that I have had the privilege to work with. Saying that I couldn't achieve what I do without the advice, network and support of the many clinicians, nurses and animal teams that I work with: the zoo and wildlife field is a large family in some respects, simply because it is so small and there is always some one out their with advice to help you solve a problem or mull over a disaster. .

What was your proudest moment?

Being invited to be the veterinary adviser to the Polar Bear European Endangered Species Management Programme.

. . . and your most embarrassing?

It takes a lot to embarrass me, but one moment stands out. Early on in my working life in China I was taken as guest of honour to a meal with my colleagues and introduced to the joys of baijiu. I was unable to work for almost three days afterwards. It was not pretty for anyone, including the small army that had to carry my prone body back home that evening.

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