The Life of a Zoo Veterinarian
Dr. Ellen Bronson of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore always wanted to work with animals. Unlike many animal-loving little girls, though, her first idea wasn't to be a vet.
"From when I was about 5, I wanted to be a naturalist," she says. "I still don't really know what that is, but that's what I wanted to do."
If a naturalist is someone who sits in the woods and observes animals and takes notes, then that's exactly what she was doing at the time. Dr. Bronson grew up "in the middle of nowhere," and her parents didn't let her watch TV. "So I spent a lot of time hanging out in the woods because there was not a lot to do otherwise," she recalls. "I had a funny notebook that my parents still have, where each page is about a certain animal."
When she got a little older, being a vet seemed like a more realistic option than working with wildlife, and it wasn't until her first year of vet school that she says she had the "aha moment" and realized she could combine the two interests. That wasn't an obvious conclusion, though, because as it turns out, you don't learn much about wild animals in vet school.
The Road to a Zoo Vet Job
Dr. Bronson studied in Germany as an exchange student, but both there and in the United States, what you learn about in vet school is domestic animals. "It's very much cats and dogs and horses and cows, with a little bit of goats and sheep and poultry," she says.
Interestingly, though, she doesn't see this as a problem. When she advises aspiring zoo vets, she says, "Often they'll choose a vet school based on how many exotic patients they'll see or what their wildlife program is. I personally don't think that's very important. The important thing is to get a really sound medical background."
That works out because when you finally meet the other species in postgraduate training, such as the internship program Bronson now supervises at the Maryland Zoo, what's kind of cool is how much is the same.
"We've all got the same parts," she says. "Everyone has some kind of heart-like organ, everyone has some kind of GI tract, everyone has nerves. All the way down to a worm or a spider, it's all more or less the same stuff. If you have that basic comparative background, then a giraffe is much like a cow, a lion is much like a cat, and the nuances are what we teach."
Those nuances, however, are significant, and learning them is critical to understanding the real differences between species. That's where education becomes tremendously important.
Acceptance into vet school and then to the internships and residencies where students learn those nuances is quite competitive, and then to get board certified, vets are expected to publish as well. Dr. Bronson's publication list includes a study on vaccinating pandas for distemper and case reports on a chameleon with a tumor and a golden lion tamarin with reproductive problems.
Challenges of the Job
One big challenge in working with wild animals is that it can be very difficult to tell when they're sick. "Even a cat is very good at hiding symptoms — it's that times a hundred in a wild animal," she says. "They're hard-wired to not show symptoms at any cost, because if they were in the wild, that would be a death sentence."
When you do realize there's a problem, it can be a delicate balancing act to decide when and how aggressively to intervene, because these creatures are more easily stressed than domestic animals. And when you do decide to treat, you've often got to figure out how to care for an animal that can't be physically handled. Recently the zoo's North American river otter, Elvis, who at 17 is quite elderly, had a sudden neurological problem, leaving him almost comatose at first, and weak in his hindquarters.
"It was very tricky — like having an ICU patient that you couldn't touch," she says. "If this were a dog, we could have run an IV drip and had him on all kinds of IV meds, and we'd be able to go in and turn him every half hour. We weren't able to do that." When the otter was well enough for long-term rehabilitation, that also had to be hands-off. A physical therapist suggested ways to encourage certain behaviors in the water, so he was given an obstacle course and food-filled toys that sank so he had to dive after them.
A success like Elvis' is obviously hugely satisfying, but Dr. Bronson says that even the cases that don't work out as well can be rewarding. "You also have the failures, which are hard at the time, but they help not just you but the whole zoo community learn," she says.
And, of course, another reward of the job is getting to work with really awesome animals. While Dr. Bronson says she loves everything from frogs to primates, she'll admit to having some favorites.
"I really like the carnivores — they're very tough, and you can get them through amazing things," she says. "If you're going to have a medical miracle, it's going to be with one of them. They just have that evolutionary fight in them." Among her favorite carnivores are the mustelids, the group that includes otters. "They're so tiny and so, so tough and ferocious," she says. "Something that can eat something bigger than they are, like a black-footed ferret can — that's amazing."
Finally, another reward of her job is how often she gets to work with an animal over its entire lifespan.
"We're there doing that neonatal exam when they're born, we watch them grow up, and every time they fall and falter along the way, we're there to fix them," she says. "And we watch them as they age, which is often the time when a lot of the more intensive care happens. We help them age gracefully and help them be pain-free, and then we're also there when they pass. That is something very special."
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