A day in the life of a zoo VN, part one

Written by: Holly Kernot
Published on: 7 Mar 2016

Holly, Matthew and a Galapagos giant tortoise.

Being trodden on by a 90kg tortoise was not something reporter Holly Kernot usually had to worry about in the execution of her duties – that was until she shadowed a veterinary nurse at ZSL London Zoo. In this special feature, she tells all about her day in a very special role...

Holly and Matthew.As a child, my list of “dream jobs” was vast. I wanted to be an actress, a journalist and a veterinary nurse – possibly all at the same time.

While I achieved one of those ambitions, the opportunity to be a VN eluded me – until I was given the opportunity to shadow senior clinical veterinary nurse Matthew Rendle for the day.

I arrived at the zoo just before 9am, an hour before it opened to the public. En route to the veterinary centre I passed the giraffes, which were already up and about, and encountered keepers going about their daily duties.

I felt honoured to see the zoo at this quiet, special time of day, and was excited about the day ahead.

Imaging an okapi

Having met up with Matthew, it was straight down to work. The first patient of the day was a female okapi with a swollen jaw, possibly caused by a problem with its tooth.

The team was planning to x-ray the okapi while it was conscious. To get it to stand still long enough for the procedure to take place, the keepers used conditioned behaviour – commonly known as "encouraging it to stand still in return for a treat".

The VNs work in tandem with the keepers to ensure the animals are happy and healthy. In this case, Matthew’s job was to ensure the keepers were delivering the correct training, so the x-ray could be done without the need for anaesthetic – anaesthesia is avoided in okapis, if possible, as they tend to be unpredictable while under.

Matthew explained: “Years ago, we would have anaesthetised the animal or had to back it into a corner, which would have compromised its welfare. We don’t do that here any more. Instead, the keepers train the animals to stand still using conditioned behaviour, so the x-ray can be taken while they are conscious."

So, while obtaining a head x-ray would once have taken a day, this training means it can be done quickly with minimal stress.

Target practice

Gemma and okapiInside the okapi house, we meet keeper Gemma, who works in the Africa section.

Gemma holds a target – a piece of wood the okapi touches with its nose. On completion, it is given positive re-enforcement, which in this case, is a treat. The okapi has been so well trained it will stay still for as long as is needed.

Matthew said: "Once [the okapi] gets used to the target, Gemma should be able to move it around and then get it to stand still for that moment while we take the x-ray.”

The x-rays will then be referred to a Harley Street dentist who will assess the animal’s teeth and tell the team if there is anything else they need to do.

According to Matthew, it was his job to work out the most effective way of getting the okapi to stand still long enough to enable the x-ray.

“It is whatever is easiest for the animal,” he said. “Its nice the nurses here are allowed the time to get involved with the training.”

Tortoise treatment

Our next stop was the tortoise house, where Matthew had to check Priscilla, who had a broken toenail.

I was told not let the tortoises stand on my feet as they weigh about 90kg. Then I was introduced to Priscilla’s sisters, Polly and Dolly.

Husbandry is an important factor in the care of the animals, and the keepers have been working with the VNs to train the tortoises so they can get more hands-on with them.

One of the most recent achievements saw the team take blood samples from the trio using trained behaviour, which enabled them to make better health care decisions for them.

When tortoises get parasites in the wild, finches land and tickle the tortoises to elicit the "extended neck" response. This enables the bird to get into the flaps of skin and pick the parasites off. Zookeepers use a similar stroking motion on the tortoises to enable them to conduct health checks.

Matthew said: “In the olden days, to blood sample these guys, they would turn them upside down and pull a leg out. It would be really compromising to them, and as herpetologists and certainly as vet nurses, we don’t want to do that.”

Little knowledge

Holly and tortoiseOn inspection, Matthew saw Priscilla’s toenail wasn’t infected and she was fine.

It was my understanding veterinary professionals didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of tortoises, but Matthew said that was changing.

"One thing we are very bad at as a profession is recognising how intelligent tortoises are," he said. "They feel pain and anxiety, but because they don't scream and shout and don't tend to bite people, they get a bit dumbed down as being a bit stupid, but they’re not at all. They’re super smart.

“It’s important to recognise, as a VN, you need to treat them accordingly and not compromise them in any way.

“With cats and dogs, you can be pretty sure they'll be dead in two decades – not many make it to 20 – whereas these guys are still babies in their 20s. They will outlive us, so there is a huge responsibility for us to get their care right.

“Overuse of antibiotics is a big problem in vet medicine now and we have to really be careful with these guys. We don’t want to give them something when they are effectively babies that we might need to use when they are older.”

The vet dept

ZSL London Zoo employs two full-time and one part-time vet in addition to three full-time VNs, including Matthew. Within the veterinary department, there is also a pathologist, a pathology assistant, a biologist, a welfare officer and a trainee keeper.

Everything that needs doing is logged in the daybook – including requests from the zookeepers – and jobs are shared out during the morning meeting, with notes written up later in the day.

“Some days we will be helping with the inpatients, other times we will be in the theatre monitoring anaesthesia for the vets or conducting health checks," Matthew said.

“Zoo animals get similar conditions to domestic animals, so we get the odd sick animal, the same as you do anywhere."

On the flip side, however, Matthew's role is very different from that of a VN in general practice. For example, when the zoo wanted to obtain a giant salamander called Professor Woo, Matthew was tasked with creating a risk assessment in terms of how much risk he presented disease-wise to the collection.

He also had to work out quarantine, nutritional and health-screening plans to enable the keepers to give it the best care on arrival – a far cry from puppy parties.

  • Part two will follow Holly as she takes a look inside the zoo's veterinary hospital.

Images courtesy ZSL London Zoo