WANTED: Vet to spend their days undertaking awesome work with some of the most interesting animals on the planet in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, at one of – if not the – premier zoos in in the world.
Sound like the kind of job you are aiming to get one day? Well, this is the job description that Dr Meg Sutherland-Smith, Veterinarian at San Diego Zoo, gets to live every day of her working life, ensuring that the myriad species that call the zoo home are kept happy and healthy. I was extremely fortunate enough to be able to accept an offer to take an afternoon tour of the main zoo hospital during my recent trip to California, and it was an opportunity that I was happy to stay grounded for, cutting short my skydive training in order to head into Balboa Park to meet with Dr Sutherland-Smith and take a peek behind the scenes at a truly wonderful institution.
The zoo’s hospital sits at the west edge of San Diego Zoo, between the main enclosures and Balboa Park as it continues toward Downtown San Diego, and the drive past many of the park’s stunning sights, such as The Globe Theatre, is a treat in itself. I met Dr Sutherland-Smith at the main gates and was warmly welcomed in to see what it takes to keep so many amazing creatures fit, healthy and happy. Despite literally arriving looking as though I had crawled off the beach, following a dash into the city from Skydive San Diego’s dropzone, I was welcomed as a fellow veterinarian and made to feel like one of the team from the outset. It was instantly clear how passionate Dr Sutherland-Smith is about the work her and her team do at the zoo and I got the distinct impression that she finds every tour she gives as enjoyable as those whom she is showing around, which is impressive considering I must have been the thousandth eager young vet looking to nose behind the scenes.
Our tour took in the entire facility, including the main prep and surgical areas, all impressively kitted out with some state of the art equipment, such as a mammography machine, used a lot to radiograph (xray) birds in exquisite detail. Much of the kit employed in the hospital finds its way there through the very generous support of a number of dedicated individuals and groups, with the standard of care that the zoo’s animals can expect rising all of the time. San Diego Zoo is clearly committed to furthering the education of it’s visitors and veterinarians, with the ability to be able to watch procedures being undertaken from the library or even via a state-of-the-art video link, which I got to see in action.
A tour of the enclosures saw me blessed with being able to see a number of fascinating animals, including a fishing cat which was recovering from recent spinal surgery, and he certainly let us know what he thought of us staring at him! One of the most useful bits of new equipment, and one that makes a huge difference on a daily basis at the zoo is a sophisticated closed-circuit video system, enabling keepers and vets to keep a very close eye on their patients without needing to even be anywhere near the pens. The ability to survey and then zoom in on even the smallest of species makes the camera system indispensible as a monitoring tool. Having the ability, for example, to be able to monitor recovering birds, who will often mask illness or abnormal behaviour if they sense the presence of humans, has really enabled the team to progress the standard of care offered to their patients. Aside from its obvious uses it’s also just a very cool bit of kit to use!
San Diego Zoo is home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals, housed in more than 100-acres and representing some 650 species and subspecies. The zoo also boasts an impressive botanical collection, with over 700,000 exotic plants growing in its Balboa Park site. If you would like to know more about internship opportunities at San Diego Zoo, including veterinary externship programmes, then check out the website. My sincerest thanks go out to Dr Sutherland-Smith, Donna Vader and the entire team at San Diego Zoo for making my visit a reality.