The trail to a profession in zoo medication and conservation

When Dr. Sharon L. Deem was considering a career in human or veterinary medicine, she began to think about ways to feed the world without destroying biodiversity. These thoughts cemented her interest in veterinary medicine, conservation, and health.

“I thought humans do better than animals and hence my interest in veterinary medicine versus human medicine,” she told JAVMA News.

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

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

The AVMA Student Virtual Symposium, March 12-15, hosted multiple sessions on zoo and wildlife medicine, conservation and health for veterinary students interested in potential careers in these areas.

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

The number of veterinarians employed in nonprofits has increased according to the 2019 AVMA Economic State of the Veterinary Profession. In zoos and aquariums in particular, the proportion of employed veterinarians rose by 169% between 2008 and 18. But their ranks remain relatively small. In 2018, 288 veterinarians were employed in zoos and aquariums.

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

“It’s a competitive field, but if you’re looking for a job with a variety of responsibilities it’s a good field,” she said.

Dr. Deem agrees that the zoomedicine job market is tough, but there are opportunities.

“The program I’m running in St. Louis didn’t exist 10 years ago. We built it, ”she said. “I see more vets branching out and convincing organizations or institutions to create these positions.”

Dr. Deem suggested that veterinary students interested in conservation or zoological medicine should post their names.

“It’s a small community so connect well and know we all know each other,” she said. “Even if you’re still in veterinary school, get your name out – go to conferences and get involved. Find a mentor who can help you get started with these networks. It wears you down. “

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

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

There are also several non-clinical tasks that a zoo veterinarian can perform, including designing exhibits, monitoring the health of staff related to zoonotic diseases, collecting donations, serving as the zoo’s ambassador, and conservation work.

In addition, there are challenges for zoom medicine. Dr. Okeson said, “A zoo veterinarian’s patients can range (in weight) from a gram like a hummingbird to thousands of pounds like an elephant.”

The challenges include the following: standardized devices that are not suitable for patients, limited physical contact with conscious animals, post-operative care and follow-up treatments that are not readily available, lack of published data on medical decisions, and some potentially rigorous postgraduate training with minimal financial incentives .

Dr. Deem said the COVID-19 pandemic caused more people to understand health and the work they and others do, but she hoped the conversation would continue and not get too human.

“It’s 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’s up to us.”