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

Written by: Holly Kernot
Published on: 12 Apr 2016

ZSL London Zoo sign

This way to London Zoo by Elliott Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the second part of her report from ZSL London Zoo, reporter Holly Kernot tours the veterinary hospital and visits the quarantine unit designed by RVN Matthew Rendle.

The veterinary hospital

Matthew RendleI was lucky enough to be given a tour of the on-site veterinary hospital, which was built in the 1950s.

While the building looked rather utilitarian, it works well and has facilities that enable the team to look after pretty much anything – from silver backed gorillas and lions to tiny frogs.

Each animal in the zoo has a European stud book manager; a person who manages that species in captivity.

“They want to keep the best genetic diversity in captivity they can, so, as part of that, we get recommendations to move animals occasionally from one collection to another, or get new animals in that we want to work with,” Matthew explained.

“My job is to support the vets and assess what needs doing for that animal, so we can quarantine it and make sure we don’t bring a disease into the collection.

“The collection here is well looked after and monitored, so the last thing we would want to do is bring an unwanted pathogen in.”


Such is Matthew’s involvement in the veterinary centre that he designed the quarantine unit. While the animals are there, Matthew takes the opportunity to draw up nutritional, training, enrichment and veterinary screening plans.

The new arrivals can be in the department from one month to a year, depending on their species.

Animals listed as “category one” could potentially be dangerous to people. A big part of Matthew's job is to assess such animals to ensure the safety of all; humans and animals alike.

On the day I visited, there was a selection of animals at various stages of the quarantine process: from new arrivals to those that had completed it and were waiting to take up residence in their new homes in the zoo. In addition to the primates, I saw poison arrow frogs, spotted turtles and crocodile lizards.

Road to recovery

Golden headed Lion TamarinUnsurprisingly, the veterinary department also housed a number of animals that were unwell and needed caring for.

One example was an Asian short-clawed otter, which was recovering after having a claw amputated. I was told, however, it was well on the way to recovery.

A starling suffering from weight loss was also being cared for.

Other temporary residents included a pair of golden-headed lion tamarins that were in the department because their enclosure was next to a construction site and it was too noisy for them. They would remain in the department until the building work was completed.

Different needs

Running the department can be somewhat of a balancing act, as all the animals have different needs. Even having large and small primates in at the same time can pose difficulties, as they communicate by different noises. So everything needs assessing properly, Matthew says, so as not to compromise any of the animals' well-being in any way.

I also met four Madagascan narrow-striped mongooses. In the wild, they are the second biggest carnivores in Madagascar. But they aren’t actually mongooses – their closest relation is a fox-like creature called a fossa.

“We had four of these coming in and my role was to find out what they needed for their enclosure, what nutrition they needed and how we were going to look after them,” Matthew said.

“This was a species I had never worked with before – I hadn’t even seen one before. That can be quite a challenge, but extrapolation from other species allows you to do the job well.”

The headcount also included a pair of pied tamarins, one of the world’s rarest primates. They were in the department while work was carried out on their enclosure.

Impending arrivals

ZSL London Zoo will soon take stock of a tree kangaroo and it will be Matthew’s job to ensure all its welfare needs are met. It is something he has been aware of for about seven months, so has had plenty of time to plan.

Sometimes, the team only has a few days to plan and prepare for a new arrival, but protocols are in place to ensure everything goes smoothly.

“Its about getting information from wherever that animal is coming from and adding it to the information you have available,” Matthew said.

Matthew Rendle and a komodoA lot of research is required to produce a scientific, quantifiable, evidence-based husbandry package, but it is crucial to have one in place, Matthew said.

On my tour, I see an eclectic collection of x-rays; from an armadillo and a stingray to a fruit bat and a mountain chicken frog. Such is the diversity of a zoo VN’s caseload.

Matthew is also able to contribute to the wider knowledge base via his role. One way he does that is via his links with ZSL’s Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), which is concerned with stranded sea mammals and other sea creatures. They were recently given some bycatch shark carcases, which they asked Matthew to x-ray.

“They had them to teach pathology and used them to show people how to make assessments of bycaught sharks. As [the sharks] are already dead, it's really important to gain as much information about them and their anatomy,” he said.

The veterinary department and ZSL London Zoo, in general, is passionate about education, Matthew said.

“There’s no point doing all this stuff and keeping it to yourself. It's really important to educate and help people as much as you can.”

He may be head nurse, but Matthew still gets involved in all aspects of the job, including cleaning the enclosures.

Never off duty

At the end of my tour, we sit in the staff room with a cup of tea, where many of the departments are taking a well-earned break.

Even when they are effectively “off duty”, the team’s love and respect for animals is tangible. Everyone appreciates how lucky they are to work for this world-renowned institution and are keen to inspire the public and fellow animal care professionals alike.

Later in the day, I continue my tour of the zoo, this time as a member of the public. There is a packed schedule of shows and feeding times that enable visitors to learn more about all of the creatures housed there – from giraffes and camels to leaf cutter ants and spiders.

The zoo was founded in 1826. As the collection has expanded in tandem with knowledge about animal care and welfare, its reputation has grown, as has its legion of loyal members. I have no doubt ZSL London Zoo will continue to learn from the past while looking to the future and will inspire a future generation of animal lovers in the process.

Supporting images courtesy ZSL London Zoo