A zoo veterinary technician (zoo vet tech) is a vet tech specialist responsible for assisting and supporting the zoo’s veterinarians. At times zoo vet techs work independently to care for various wild animals, including exotic or endangered ones and potentially dangerous ones that must be approached appropriately 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.
Vet tech careers are predicted to increase in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) shows that jobs in veterinary technology will increase 20 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than the national average for all occupations at 5 percent. In the same decade, an estimated 24,100 new positions will be needed in animal care facilities nationwide.
While the training pathways are similar, zoo vet techs learn unique skills to care for endangered animals in captivity rather than household pets. According to the website The Balance Careers, zoo vet techs assist zoo veterinarians in caring for the health of tiny and enormous animals.
Daily zoo vet tech responsibilities include assisting with general health examinations, 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.
Read on to learn about a day in the life of a zoo veterinary technician and the types of animals they care for, their work environments and responsibilities, and the steps required to become a 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 various animal breeds and often with exotic species. In addition, 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 risky end of the spectrum are familiar species such as rabbits, goats, and ducks. On the other end of the spectrum are generally less encountered and, without proper training, dangerous creatures such as scorpions, venomous snakes, lions, and bears. Due to the wide range of animals included in zoo vet tech training, the education and training for this role are specialized and rigorous.
Clinical Environment & Typical Daily Procedures for Zoo Vet Techs
Each zoo has a unique veterinary care environment. While some zoos may house veterinary complexes with state-of-the-art radiology suites and well-equipped surgery and procedure rooms, others may have more basic facilities.
Regular exposure to heat, humidity, and cold is the norm for zoo vet techs. However, vet techs may be exposed to extremes in temperature, humidity, and moisture when tending to zoo animals since they are housed in artificial habitats designed to ensure their health and well-being.
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. As a result, they may experience minor physical trauma such as cuts, bruises, and minor burns even when handling the animals appropriately. A zoo may require its employees to be vaccinated for rabies and other zoonotic diseases to best protect its staff.
Though zoo veterinary technicians typically work at zoos, some may find work at aquariums and other animal research facilities, where many though not all, the same hazards apply.
When it comes to typical daily procedures a zoo vet tech performs, 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, dental prophylaxis (teeth cleaning) and radiology, anesthesia induction, monitoring and recovery, medication administration, and IV catheter placement.
Since zoos care for endangered species, having training in ultrasonography – which the Merck Manual defines as the use of high-frequency sound (ultrasound) waves to produce images of internal organs and other tissues – is a valuable skill to ensure that animal populations can survive and thrive in the future.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) lists current job openings for zoo vet techs which include the following responsibilities:
- Submitting or processing specimen samples for lab testing
- Entering medical records to transmit vital information to supervisors 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 maintenance as needed
Daily Physical Requirements & Emotional Considerations for Zoo Vet Techs
As a zoo veterinary technician, physical strength, overall health, and well-being are essential. Vet techs must be able to handle animals of widely differing sizes and be skilled in handling dangerous animals that may require unique 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 may be required in this position. Under “physical skills,” one zoo vet tech job posting with the AZA 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 beyond the zoo facilities.
Protecting endangered species attracts many zoo vet techs to this work. Many zoos actively protect endangered species—a gratifying aspect of this profession. Jenny Gordon, a zoo vet tech at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, says she’s “been able to promote the life of many animals that are and have been near extinction. The [Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo] has been able to promote endangered species to create offspring in an attempt to one day have a flourishing population again and continue the re-growth of a species.”
Working as a zoo vet tech offers opportunities to treat unique animals and conduct research in service of animal health. For example, Laurel W. at the Dallas Zoo discusses her pain management procedures with a black mamba snake showing signs of neck discomfort. For a year, she and her team have collected blood samples and administered fentanyl patches as part of an ongoing pharmacokinetic research plan, improving the snake’s well-being.
Other zoo vet techs at the Dallas Zoo have specialized ultrasound technology and practice training to ensure healthy gestation labor and delivery of endangered species. In addition, most zoo vet techs assist in surgeries to ensure the health and safety of zoo animals – many of which are endangered species.
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 as detailed by the Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT), the leading organization of veterinary technical care in zoo animal science:
- Step 1: Graduate from a veterinary technology program approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Being a member of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) is recommended, and membership in the Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT) is strongly recommended.
- Step 2: 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.
- Step 3: 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.
- Step 4: Complete at least 40 case logs, 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.
- Step 5: 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.
- Step 6: 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).
- Step 7: Take the AVZMT exam. Upon completing steps one through six, the candidate may sit for the AVZMT Examination to be certified as a zoological veterinary technician.
Professional Organizations for Zoo Veterinary Technicians
Becoming a zoo vet tech requires a great deal of commitment and hard work that continues once hired by a zoo. As with any medical profession, 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 essential resource for current zoo vet techs or those considering joining this unique professional field. AZVT’s mission is “dedicated to all aspects of quality veterinary technical care in the field of zoo animal medicine. We believe this is accomplished through the sharing of ideas, improving techniques, and contributing to conservation.” Since forming in 1981, membership has grown from 29 to 400 members worldwide.
In addition, AZVT holds annual conferences focused on laboratory techniques that support individual and institutional research. This organization promotes education and professional standards and contributes to conservation.
In 2022, membership costs $40 per year for active members and associates and $22 per year for students and non-technical personnel. It includes discounted rates at conferences and seminars, networking opportunities with AZVT members, access to a members-only forum, director, and quarterly newsletter.