A Day in the Life of a Wildlife and Conservation Vet

Written by Chloe Buiting Reading time: 13 mins

Can you give us a brief outline of your job?

dI’m very fortunate to hold a few different roles, which provide me with a mix of clinical and non-clinical work. I find huge fulfillment in the roles themselves, as well as the variety they bring to my career. The largest part of my work is the position I hold with Loop Abroad as Director of Outreach. In this, I am largely responsible for designing and creating new study abroad programs for students interested in veterinary medicine, wildlife an conservation, and this is something I am hugely passionate about. These are incredibly diverse fields, and I believe exposing students to all of the wonderful possibilities of their future career paths is very important in their development, and reminding them of all the avenues available to them as future vets, techs, biologists, marine scientists and conservationists. These are educational, hands-on programs that operate in many countries around the world, and I credit early experiences like these in my own life and studies that helped to shape the exciting and diverse career I have today. They also have robust and structured curriculums, and provide credits towards their studies, while offering clinical opportunities often lacking at university.


My second role is as a conservation consultant for Fauna & Flora International, which is the world’s oldest international conservation organization chaired by Sir David Attenborough. Our mission is to protect threatened species and habitats worldwide, and we have conservation projects in over 40 countries around the world. In this role, which I’ve held for about 18 months, I am responsible for maintaining our donor relationships, communicating our work with stakeholders and the wider community, fundraising, identifying new project sites of interest, and identifying corporations to partner with that are interested in working towards achieving net-zero in their operations. This is a fascinating role that is incredibly fulfilling, and I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of my work. And, of course, when Australia’s borders re-open, I look forward to once again travelling and visiting our many project sites, and taking our supporters with me to see the work in-person!


And lastly, the clinical stuff! When on Loop projects I enjoy working alongside the in-country veterinary team to provide veterinary support to the local animals, and when at home in Australia I am based on Kangaroo Island where I enjoy locuming for the island’s vet practice, which sees a high wildlife case load. I am also a veterinarian for the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Network, which responds to call outs regarding injured wildlife, and is particularly active in summer which is sadly our bushfire season.


Where did your interest in working in this sector come from?

I have always been interested in wildlife and conservation since a very young age. Looking back, this almost certainly stemmed from my childhood growing up on Australia’s beautiful Lord Howe Island, which is a tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean, only about 10kms long by 1km wide. There is a beautiful lagoon that wraps around one half of the island, and some spectacular mountains down one end with cloud forests and rich wildlife. There are only about 300 people living on the island and very few cars, and Sir David Attenborough once called it a place “so remarkable its almost unbelievable”. I fell in love with the natural world here and decided I wanted to do what I could to protect it, which led me to pursuing a veterinary degree with the idea to eventually end up back in the wild, working to help the animals I grew up with on Lord Howe. Of course, there are many ways to be involved in conservation, a veterinary career is just one of them – but I didn’t realise this until I had already graduated! That being said, I love my job and wouldn’t change a thing.


How did you get into it?

My career has taken a winding and unconventional path in my six years since graduation, which was largely by design. After finishing university in 2015, I decided I wanted to spend the first few years exploring the many different avenues a career in veterinary medicine had to offer, with the goal of ending up in conservation, although in what capacity I wasn’t yet sure. What I discovered, as cliched as it sounds, is that a vet degree really is like a passport, and with our highly recognized and respected degree, along with our abundance of specialized yet transferrable skills, we are able to offer valuable contributions in a vast array of industries and roles – not just clinical veterinary roles as we are often led to believe in university (or at least I was). I was inspired by my first few years out of university, and began to see that a career with our qualifications can be almost anything you can dream up, or a mix of different work and interests as I have done.


What sort of different roles did you do to get to where you are today?

After university, I took a year away to gain field experience including a course in wildlife capture and translocation (which is held annually in Zimbabwe), shadowing vets in South Africa, a veterinary internship in Malawi, a one health project in Tanzania, and a research placement at a zoo in the US. Through this year away I gained a lot of experience and my eyes were opened to all the possibilities available to someone with a DVM. It was really inspiring, and I think after that I knew I wanted to do a mix of field work, along with some non-clinical roles.


When I came home to Australia, I did a one-year rotating internship in a busy small animal referral hospital which was great for gaining clinical skills and confidence. After this I worked in general practice, specifically choosing ones with high wildlife caseloads so I could try to get the best of both worlds. Working in GP is one of the most frequently offered pieces of advice for people wanting to work with wildlife, and having since done it myself I can vouch for the fact that it’s extremely valuable in honing your skills. I combined this period with some travel too, and worked in different parts of Australia and Scotland.


I have always spent time volunteering where I can, which is something I continued to do during my time in GP. I am passionate about this because it’s a great way to build up your skills, demonstrate an interest in the field, make a meaningful contribution with your time and profession, and also meet people in the field. The idea of “networking” makes me cringe a little, but ultimately, we have a small and tight-knit profession, and knowing people within it only enriches your professional experience, while maintaining relationships with those in the field is also a wonderful – and common – way of hearing about jobs.


In terms of transitioning out of solely clinical work and into the variety of roles I have now, it started with a relationship I have with an NGO in Tanzania called MAWO that I used to do some unpaid work for. After spending some time with them in rural Tanzania, I decided to set up a scholarship to take local Maasai students on safari to see their wildlife, having realised that many never get this opportunity yet are almost “expected” to care for their wildlife – often by people like me who talk about the importance of wildlife conservation and stamping out Human-Wildlife Conflict in the region. I thought before this can even be discussed, these students should be afforded the opportunity to go on safari, see the animals, and begin to develop a relationship with them of their own. This experience was, in part, responsible for igniting my love of non-clinical, big-picture conservation work, which connected me with others in the conservation space. And, before I knew it, it led to Loop Abroad and later FFI, both of which I feel extremely happy and content with now.


Did you have a plan to get to a certain point/level in your career Or did you just keep picking moves that looked interesting to you?

While I always had the goal or aspiration to end up in conservation, and suspected that would be working in the field rather than an institution like a zoo, I didn’t know much more about what it would entail. I certainly didn’t expect to love non-clinical work as much as I do, and probably saw myself working clinically with the animals every day for the rest of my life. I am thankful I kept my mind open to all the possibilities available, or I wouldn’t have the career I have today. I guess I have tried to re-evaluate what I most enjoyed every step of the way, rather than why I thought I “should” be doing, and let the path and opportunities take me from there.


What does a typical day look like for you?

There is hardly a typical day for me! Lately with COVID, it has meant I’ve been unable to move very far from my home here in Australia, let alone leave my state or country, so there have been similarities in each day, but still they remain different. Usually it starts with my Loop Abroad work - talking with conservation organisations, zoos and wildlife parks around the world and planning new programs. Designing curriculum, hiring teaching veterinarians, mentoring students… etc. I love this work, and I love designing programs in unique and exciting places that I know the students will get a lot out of. Then sometimes it is reading repots for FFI, working on campaigns, meeting (virtually) with colleagues or donors or organisations we are partnered with. If there is a wildlife call out I will go to that, or if our dolphin surveys are running here on the island (about once a month) I’ll be on the boat collecting data with the wonderful team.

Once borders open up, I’ll be based in different locations depending on the time of year – from Loop Abroad course sites to FFI project sites – but my first stop will be Germany to see my husband’s family who we have been unable to see for two long years, so I’m eager to get there.


What would you say are the best and worst aspects of the job?

The best part of my job is the variety of my work and satisfaction it brings me. From designing programs, to talking with students, working with FFI on exciting new conservation projects or communicating the important of these projects to stakeholders and the community – it’s so varied and I truly rarely find a day dull or repetitive.

The worst part, for me, has been due to COVID – the isolation of doing everything alone and online. I’m looking forward to being able to see people again and go abroad as so much of my work depends on it.


What are the main skills you need to be a...?

To pursue a non-traditional veterinary path, I would say some of the most important skills are…

Flexibility, maintaining an open mind, having a willingness to think outside the box and create the career you want, social skills and the ability or willingness to reach out to people and put yourself out there – particularly when researching different career paths or applying for jobs. Communication skills are also important, such as articulating why your veterinary skills are applicable to a para-veterinary field, eg when applying for a job. Resilience is also valuable, because it can be scary straying from the well-trodden path, and sometimes you will doubt if what you are doing is the right thing. There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road, but once you find your niche, it is incredibly rewarding – at least in my own experience.


What are the common misconceptions that people have about the work you do?

Hmm, that’s a tricky one! Because a career in wildlife and conservation is one of the less trodden paths in veterinary medicine, I think that people can sometimes believe it is difficult or one with few jobs. In reality, I think this is a misconception stemming from the fact that because there is no clear ‘one path’, it can be difficult to know exactly what steps to take (as opposed to a more traditional career eg zoo vet, which often goes university, internship, residency, exams, job). But conservation is a hugely diverse field with endless avenues to explore and doors to enter through, particularly for someone who holds a veterinary degree. While it’s far too big of a topic to discuss here, examples of such paths include government, NGOs, startups, for-profit orgs, in a non-conservation related organisations as a consultant, independent contractor, science communications, administration etc etc. This is a big passion of mine so I’m happy to elaborate anytime!!


What advice would you give someone wanting to break into this career?

I used to think it was fruitless going into my path in depth because admittedly it is a difficult one to replicate. But I’ve since come to see that actually it’s a good example of how things can be done differently, and how interests can be merged into a unique and satisfying career. I hope it can serve as an example of the value in reaching out to people, saying “yes” to opportunities, trying to keep doors open as much a possible (at least at the beginning of your career), relentlessly going after something you want, volunteering where possible, and being flexible at every turn. I also think there is a huge value in reaching out to those ahead of you in their careers, particularly the people with careers that interest you, and asking them about it – much like what we doing here! For the most part, I think people are eager to help and share their experiences, and any information you can gain from that will only be of assistance. And also, while it’s difficult, I would say to try to enjoy the journey too – life is full of twists and turns and very few people know where they are going to end up. So rather than being terrified of not knowing where you are going/what your next step is/how to get where you want/knowing what exactly you want (as I have been from time to time), try to take comfort in the fact that everyone is in this boat with you, and remember there is no harm in having fun along the way. You can always change directions if something isn’t right for you!

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