Day in the Life of a Zoo Veterinary Technician

A zoo veterinary technician (zoo vet tech) is a type of vet tech specialist responsible for assisting and supporting a zoo’s veterinarians, and at times working independently, to care for a variety of wild animals, including exotic or endangered ones, and potentially dangerous ones that must be properly approached and handled. Perhaps more so than any other vet tech specialist, the zoo veterinary technician must study and develop expertise in a wide variety of breeds and species to understand how best to care for them and help treat them when they fall ill.

Daily routine tasks may include: assisting with general exams, collecting samples, running diagnostic lab tests, preparing surgical sites, changing bandages, inserting catheters, taking radiographs, administering fluids, filling prescriptions, and giving intravenous or intramuscular injections.

What follows is a detailed look at the patients, the work environment, the responsibilities, and the education of the zoo veterinary technician.

Zoo Animal Patients

Since zoo vet techs do not work in small animal clinics, where care is focused primarily on cats, dogs and other domesticated animals, they tend to work with a variety of animal breeds, and often with exotic species. As zoos are working hard to protect endangered animals, vet techs may be required to work with rare animal breeds that are not as well understood, or as predictable.

Zoo animals can range from species that present little danger to humans to species that can be far more dangerous if not handled correctly. On the less dangerous end of the spectrum are familiar species such as rabbits, goats and ducks. On the other end of the spectrum are animals that are generally less encountered and, without proper training, extremely dangerous, such as scorpions, venomous snakes, lions and bears. This is why education and training for this role is crucial, and quite rigorous.

Clinical Environment & Typical Daily Procedures

Working environments vary from zoo to zoo. While some zoos may house veterinary complexes including multiple radiology suites and well-equipped surgery and procedure rooms, others may not have the funding to do so.

When tending to zoo animals, vet techs may be exposed to extremes in temperature, humidity, and moisture, since the animals are housed in man-made habitats designed to ensure their health and well-being, no matter how uncomfortable those environments may be to their human caregivers. Regular exposure to heat, humidity, and cold is the norm.

Zoo vet techs may also be exposed to potentially hazardous chemical substances such as cleaning agents used for animal enclosures. Additionally, like most animal handlers, zoo vet techs may be exposed to disease organisms, and, even when handling the animals appropriately, may experience minor physical trauma such as cuts, bruises and minor burns. To best protect its staff, a zoo may require its employees to be vaccinated (for rabies and other zoonotic diseases).

Though zoo veterinary technicians typically work at zoos, some may find work at aquariums and other animal research facilities, where many though not all of the same hazards apply.

When it comes to typical daily procedures performed by a zoo vet tech, these tasks can be as varied as the patient population. Zoo vet techs assist veterinarians with routine, diagnostic and emergency procedures. These procedures include: surgery, digital radiology, ultrasonography ( the use of high-frequency sound (ultrasound) waves to produce images of internal organs and other tissues), dental prophylaxis (teeth cleaning) and radiology, anesthesia induction, monitoring and recovery, medication administration, and IV catheter placement.

Additionally, vet techs may be tasked with:

  • Submitting or processing specimen samples for lab testing;
  • Entering medical records to transmit vital information to supervisors, in order to assist in producing a treatment plan;
  • Maintaining the hospital and animal holding spaces, and inventory clinic supplies;
  • Assisting with the creation of balanced and nutritious feeding plans for animals with a wide variety of dietary requirements;
  • Performing routine pharmacy-related tasks;
  • Participating in gross necropsies and sample preparation as needed;
  • Preparing specimens and performing diagnostic laboratory tests;
  • Training veterinary technician interns/externs or other volunteers on procedures and protocols;
  • Following all safety guidelines and modeling safe work practices to ensure a safe work environment;
  • Performing husbandry tasks such as cleaning, feeding, and/or maintenance as needed.

Daily Physical Requirements & Emotional Considerations

As a zoo veterinary technician, physical strength and overall health and well-being are essential. Vet techs must have the ability to handle animals of widely differing sizes and be skilled in handling dangerous animals that may require special methods of restraint to ensure safety. Vet techs will be working with various animals in sundry environments. Walking and long periods of standing, bending and lifting heavy objects all may be required in this position. Under “physical skills,” one zoo vet tech job posting states: “This position may require the ability to make coordinated gross motor movements in response to changing external stimuli within moderately demanding tolerances.”

Of note, zoo veterinary technicians may be required to work weekends, holidays, some evenings, and generally beyond scheduled work hours. This is a highly competitive field as the number of practicing zoo vet techs is small. But, the job has enormous benefits. First, many zoos are working to protect endangered species, an amazing cause to be supporting through one’s profession. Second, the work offers variety. “Every day, I experience something that just amazes me,” stated Mary Ellen Goldberg a part-time veterinary technician at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida. The article goes on to say, no day in this field is “typical” – however, primary duties for a zoo vet tech tend towards collecting samples and assisting in surgery.

Zoo Vet Tech Education

As mentioned, educational and training requirements for zoo vet techs are rigorous – which is logical once one has reviewed the daily tasks required of this position. Here are the steps one must take to work as a zoo vet tech:

  • Graduate from a veterinary technology program approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
  • Complete no less than five years (or 10,000 hours) of work experience in the field of zoo medicine. This experience cannot be more than seven years old at the point of application.
  • Complete at least 40 hours of continuing education in fields relevant to this specialty. The CE hours must have been taken no earlier than five years preceding the application to take the exam to become a veterinary technician specializing in zoological medicine.
  • Complete at least 40 case logs, at least five of which must be detailed case studies. These case studies must cover mammal, avian and reptile/amphibian categories, and be approved by a qualified supervisor.
  • Complete the advanced skills list, thereby establishing the ability to operate as a zoo veterinary technician. This requires the signature of a qualified co-worker or veterinarian.
  • Secure two letters of recommendation from qualified individuals. This includes letters from Academy of Veterinary Zoological Medicine Technicians (AVZMT) members, supervising zoological veterinarians, or Diplomates of the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM).
  • Upon completion of steps one through six, the candidate may sit for the AVZMT Examination in order to be certified as a zoological veterinary technician.

Professional Organizations

Becoming a zoo vet tech requires a great deal of commitment and hard work – hard work that continues once hired by a zoo. As with any profession that is medical in nature, it is incredibly beneficial to be a part of an organization that supports one’s work and promotes continued growth and education within the field.

The Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT) is an important resource for those who are considering or already a part of the field. “The Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT) allows those who are currently employed in zoos, aquariums and wildlife facilities the much needed connection as often we face some challenges not seen in the private practice world. It allows sharing of information both at the conference level as well as on our forum and gives us a resource (we have a membership directory that is sent to our members each year) to connect with others throughout the year,” states AZVT Executive Director and Hospital Manager of the Dallas Zoo Dianna Lydick, BS, RVT, VTS (Zoo). Dianna continues, “On the AZVT website, we list bibliography references, we also list those zoo, aquarium, and wildlife facilities that offer extern/intern/preceptorship opportunities.”

AZVT works to provide a forum for the presentation and exchange of information, challenges, and methodology encountered in the field of zoo veterinary technology through newsletters as well as annual, and regional conferences.