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May 15, 2021

The path to a career in zoo medicine and conservation

This discipline continues to be a competitive and versatile area of veterinary medicine
Published on April 28, 2021

When Dr. Sharon L. Deem weighed a career choice in human or animal medicine, she started to think about things such as how to feed the world without destroying biodiversity. Those thoughts solidified her interest in veterinary medicine, conservation, and one health.

“I thought humans were doing better than animals and thus my interest in veterinary medicine over human medicine,” she told JAVMA News.

Dr. Deem in the field observing a bird
Dr. Sharon L. Deem, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist, is the director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine. She says with the sort of conservation and public health crises of today, the veterinary profession is being recognized as even more important. (Courtesy of Dr. Deem/Saint Louis Zoo)

Dr. Deem is now director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine and secretary of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.

The virtual Student AVMA Symposium, March 12-15, hosted several sessions related to zoo and wildlife medicine, conservation, and one health for veterinary students interested in potential careers in those areas.

Dr. Deem said, “I think a lot of students today are in that same mindset,” as she was. “With the sort of conservation and public health crises of today, our profession is being recognized as even more important.”

Not-for-profit organizations have seen an increase in the number of veterinarians employed, according to the 2019 AVMA Economic State of the Veterinary Profession. Specifically, zoos and aquariums have seen a 169% jump from 2008-18 in veterinarians employed. But their ranks remain relatively small. In 2018, 288 veterinarians were employed at zoos and aquariums.

Dr. Danelle Okeson, staff veterinarian at Rolling Hills Zoo in Salina, Kansas, confirmed that zoo medicine is a growing field but does not have a huge number of jobs available. Dr. Okeson spoke during the session “Zoo Veterinarians: The Ultimate General Practitioner” at the SAVMA Symposium.

“It is a competitive field, but if you want a job with a variety of responsibilities, it is a good field,” she said.

Dr. Deem agrees that the job market in zoo medicine is tough, but there are opportunities.

“The program I run at St. Louis didn’t exist 10 years ago; we built it,” she said. “I see more veterinarians branching out and convincing organizations or institutions to make those positions exist.”

Dr. Deem suggested that veterinary students who are interested in conservation or zoo medicine should get their names out there.

“It is a small community, so network well and know that we all know each other,” she said. “Even if you are still in veterinary school, get your name out there—go to conferences and get involved. Find a mentor who can help you move into those networks. It sets you up.”

Dr. Okeson said one of the interesting things about the career is that zoo veterinarians are not only generalists but also specialists.

“Zoo medicine requires specialized and additional training, yet a lot of what we do is focused on what a general practitioner would do,” she said.

There are also several nonclinical duties that a zoo veterinarian may be tasked with, including exhibit design, overseeing the health of employees related to zoonotic diseases, fundraising, acting as an ambassador for the zoo, and conservation work.

Additionally, there are challenges to zoo medicine. Dr. Okeson said, “The patients for a zoo veterinarian can range (in weight) from a gram like a hummingbird to thousands of pounds like elephants.”

Among the challenges are the following: standardized equipment not fitting patients, physical contact with awake animals being limited, postoperative care and follow-up treatments not being easy to achieve, a lack of published data on medical decisions, and some potential rigorous postgraduate training with minimal financial incentives.

Dr. Deem said the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more people understanding one health and the work she and others do, but she added that she hopes the conversation keeps going and doesn’t become too human-centric.

“It is positive as long as human health doesn’t overtake it and miss the forest through the trees,” she said. “We can’t lose the veterinary perspective, and it is up to us.”