Tender Loving Care

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blogs. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith is a veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo, and is part of a large team that helps care for all of the collection animals. This team includes five full-time veterinarians, six veterinary technicians, five hospital keepers, two administrative assistants, as well as the nursery keepers and the Clinical Pathology Lab. Surprisingly, her job is not that different from that of a human doctor in keeping the animals healthy—she performs routine preventative care and evaluates the condition of animals on their way out to other zoos or being transferred in. She also performs responsive medicine to animals who are injured or in need of help, like for a broken bone or a complicated birth.

One of the most important aspects of her job is safely providing anesthesia to the animals, because getting the right dosage is crucial to a successful surgery or examination. There are several ways of administering anesthesia, like putting a mask over the animal’s mouth and nose for it to breathe in gas, using a syringe to inject the animal, using a dart gun from a distance if it would be dangerous to approach the animal, or in some cases using a specialized crate.

On a typical day for Dr. Sutherland-Smith she will see five to fifteen animals, depending on how many of the other veterinarians are on site that day. She arrives at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. to get her day organized and get any paperwork out of the way before her meetings at 7:00. This is when she meets with the other veterinarians to assess the day and discuss who needs to do what. After that, she may be assigned to go out into the Zoo and observe any animals of concern and assess their medical needs, or to stay and do procedures in the hospital. These procedures are usually done by noon, and the remainder of the day is devoted to filling out all the necessary paperwork that goes along with animal treatment, analyzing any data collected that day, and making treatment plans for any animals that require it.

Obviously, working directly with exotic animals every day leads to some pretty interesting experiences, and Dr. Sutherland-Smith has had her fair share of those. One of her favorites was when she got to visit China and work directly with their pandas as well as help train the Chinese veterinarians in their care. She enjoys having an exciting job where every day is different and oftentimes many important things are going at once.

So, how exactly would one become an exotic animal vet? Well, first off you’d need the proper education. Dr. Sutherland-Smith has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Masters’ degree in biochemistry. After graduating veterinary school, she did an internship at an animal hospital in New York City, and worked her way up through various jobs from there. Her advice to people who want to have jobs similar to hers is to not get too focused on one narrow career, but to keep your options open to things coming up so you are eligible for a wide variety of jobs. She also recommends that you pursue things that will give you the proper experience for your field, and to seek out volunteer opportunities. The key is to get your foot in the door with an entry level position and work your way up from there.

Sophie, Careers Team