For veterinarians at San Diego Zoo Global, in addition to caring for the animals in our collection, one of the most important things they do is share their vast knowledge and expertise with aspiring veterinary students at the university level. Until one has actually observed or practiced in a zoo veterinary hospital, it is impossible to fully understand the amount of discipline needed and the challenges faced by veterinarians and support staff. The clinical veterinary medicine and veterinary pathology externship programs at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories provide just such an opportunity to a select group of students each year.
In 2003, our veterinarians and pathologists collaborated to create an externship program, and since then it has grown exponentially. With more than 30 accredited veterinary schools in the United States, we have collectively hosted over 200 students from the US as well as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, India, Thailand, and China (just to name a few!). Working with such a diverse group of students also helps us, as we gain knowledge of veterinary practices in other countries. Since we often send and receive animals to and from zoos worldwide, this proves very beneficial throughout the animal shipment process.
As with specialties in human medicine such as cardiology or orthopedics, zoo veterinary medicine is a specialty where focused training and education is required. During and even after graduation, volunteering to participate in as many observational opportunities as possible enhances students’ ability to learn the many different aspects of the profession in the clinical setting. Students should strive to observe different practice areas in veterinary medicine such as small animal, large animal, equine, zoo and exotic, pathology, research, or industrial. This demonstrates to selection committees that a student has researched the profession and holds a genuine interest in pursuing a career in the field of zoo and exotic animal medicine.
Once a veterinary student has chosen zoo medicine as a field of interest, applying for and participating in an externship rotation is an important step toward success. Most university career counseling offices have information regarding externships, and there are numerous externship opportunities listed on the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians website as well, including our facilities. Each program listing contains specific information needed for applying to select institutions. Most programs accept applications at least a year in advance, sometimes two, so it is important to begin identifying potential programs as a college freshman or sophomore.
Our veterinary student externs must be in their fourth or senior year during their rotations. This ensures they have enough experience and education to receive the greatest benefit while working in our practice. Once students graduate and obtain their degree in veterinary medicine and a license to practice, many will apply for the University of California, Davis, Residency, which includes one year each at three different zoological institutions: Sacramento Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The residency program also partners with SeaWorld San Diego and offers residents an eight-week opportunity to work in aquatic veterinary medicine.
While it takes a great deal of initiative, discipline, leadership skills, and patience, working as a veterinarian in a zoo setting is also extremely rewarding. For those with sincere passion for conservation and caring for the Earth’s creatures, working as a zoo veterinarian is not just a living but truly a way of life. It brings the staff of our veterinary services and pathology departments and San Diego Zoo Global as a whole great satisfaction knowing that the years of experience we share will be translated through the work of future generations of zoo veterinarians.
For information regarding the UC Davis Residency program:
And select the following Program Descriptions:
• Zoo and Wildlife Pathology
• Zoological Medicine
Valerie Stoddard is a senior administrative assistant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Serenade.