A walk on the wild side in Africa

Written by: Kim Houghton
Published on: 14 Jun 2020


Had you always wanted to be an RVN? If so, what inspired you to want to join the profession?

I had always wanted to work with animals, but I actually worked as a horse riding instructor for five years prior to training as a VN. I had toyed with the idea of veterinary nursing when I left school, but followed my passion with horses first, until I got tired of working outside in sub-zero temperatures.

I then got a student job at Rufford Veterinary Group in Lancashire. My older sister is also a VN, so it runs in our blood. She was also a source of inspiration. I have always been passionate about animals, and my sister and I were always rescuing and hand-rearing wildlife when we were children, so it was an easy transition to being an SVN.

Can you tell us about your career in the UK?

I qualified in the UK in 2013, after completing a Level 3 Diploma in Veterinary Nursing at Myerscough College. I trained in a very busy small animal practice with an amazing team, so got heaps of experience.

I stayed on at Rufford Veterinary Group for two years after I qualified, including both medical and surgical nursing, and ran its busy nurse clinics before heading out to South Africa. I loved my job and was sad to leave, but I didn’t want to pass up an amazing opportunity.

What made you take the leap and head to South Africa?

I had visited South Africa as a teenager with my parents and fell in love with the country – in particular, its wildlife and its beauty. I had participated in a few volunteer conservation projects in 2013-14, and it became my dream to work and live in South Africa for a year. In particular, I wanted to work with African wildlife.

I loved everything about the country – its many cultures, the beautiful scenery, the people and the laid-back way of life. I’ve always been a sun worshiper and wanted a career break away from rainy, cold England. I also wanted to do more with my qualification while young enough to do so.

It turned out to be no easy feat getting a job in South Africa. I was lucky enough to have a friend who knew a vet who was working on a veterinary programme in South Africa, and put me in touch. Before I knew it, I had signed up to work for three months on the programme.

The programme took pre-veterinary students and those already in vet school from overseas, and exposed them to a wide range of veterinary activities, including working with African wildlife, community work in poor areas, farm work with agricultural livestock and clinical work in a small animal practice.

The programme aims to give students experience, and a taste of what being a vet will be like before they decide on their career path. My job was to coordinate and teach the volunteers, passing on my knowledge and skills.

I was hooked in no time and agreed to extend my stay to a year. I loved teaching the students and volunteers, and found I was also constantly experiencing new things. Every day was an adventure – from darting and chasing zebra and giraffe through the bush, monitoring a rhino under sedation, and visiting local townships and treating up to 200 dogs in a day with no other access to veterinary care, to learning how to pregnancy test cattle.

What was meant to be a one-year placement has turned into six years and counting. Why have you stayed?

At the end of the first year I wasn’t ready to go home and agreed to stay on for another year. In that year we renovated an old dairy milking shed into a clinic. Two local vets took the clinic over to run as a small animal practice, which opened another door of opportunity for me when they asked me to work for them.

I leapt at the opportunity to stay in South Africa longer (and on more of a sustainable salary) and have been working at the clinic now for three years. The students and volunteers visit the clinic one day a week as part of their experience, so I am also still involved with the programme and passing on my knowledge to participants.

What is Wild Inside Adventures and how did it come about?

While working on the programme, I realised it could also be an amazing experience and learning opportunity for VNs and SVNs, rather than just vet students. I started to market the programme whenever I went back to the UK to visit family and found the first few nurses I booked in loved the programme as much as the pre-vet students.

I decided to set up my own agency to market the programme, called Wild Inside Adventures. This is something I had never foreseen myself doing, but I love spreading the word about the project and giving others the opportunity to take part. As I had worked on the programme, I felt I could give an honest idea of what it involves and answer any questions future participants may have. I also still live around the corner from the volunteer accommodation, so get to meet everyone I book in and make sure they are happy with everything during their trip.

Are you taking on volunteers at the moment? If so, what skills do applicants need and how can they prepare?

The programme season runs from March to November each year, so we are gearing up for our first participants of the year arriving and are busy taking bookings for 2020-21.

Applicants do not need any specific skills – the aim of the programme is to learn. We take any experience level and tailor the programme to the participant’s skill levels, so he or she can put existing skills to good use while learning new ones. All participants need is a sense of adventure and a thirst for new experiences.

What has been the most memorable experience during your time in South Africa? Do you have any standout cases?

Every encounter with one of Africa’s wild species has stuck in my mind. It is amazing being up close to giant animals, and I have been involved with stitch-ups and vasectomies on lions, rescuing a collapsed giraffe calf from the bush, chemical sterilisation of male elephants and relocation of most of the species in the area to new reserves.

I have also been involved with anti-poaching work with rhinos, including dehorning a few herds, which really inspired me to create awareness for how bad the poaching situation is and how endangered rhino are becoming. I also enjoy welfare work, and going into townships and rural communities to care for their animals has been an eye‑opener. I can still name most of the dogs in our local township.

I will also never forget treating my first snake bite, and seeing all the diseases we learn about in the UK, but never see, such as babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, distemper and, of course, encountering my first rabid dog.

Over the years I have had a few “special cases”, such as Lewis – a piglet we found on the road and thought was dead, until we tried to move him out of the way and he let out a pitiful squeak. I hand‑reared Lewis and, on occasion, he slept in my bed with me (along with all his parasites) when he was weak and I was scared he would die. He now lives in Coffee Bay with the headman of the village and has piglets of his own, making me a “Grandpig”.

We also hand-reared Jason the calf in the back garden after he was rejected by his mum – much to our neighbour’s disgust when he bellowed for his bottle every morning.

Plus, of course, my own “tripod” dog Ntengu, which I was only supposed to be fostering for a few weeks while she recovered from her amputation, but crept her way into my heart, and is now well and truly here to stay.

Is there anything you miss about practising in the UK?

I don’t really miss too much about practising in the UK – thanks to the South African Vet Council, veterinary practice standards are pretty similar to those set by the RCVS. It can be tough working in [South Africa], though, as frequent power cuts occur and always at the worst time. And it can be difficult to get hold of supplies, with drugs frequently going out of stock.

I do, however, miss working with small furries. They are not popular as pets in South Africa so we do not see many in practice. Many vets here panic if they have to see a rabbit or a hamster, as it just isn’t a common thing.

What advice would you give to any VNs considering volunteering abroad?

Advice to volunteers would be to get out there. As nurses, we can do so much that I had never realised. Volunteering can be absolutely life-changing. When I look back on the past five years, I can’t believe the amount of things I have done that I never dreamed I would do.

I have also grown as a person, and become so much more confident after being exposed to different situations and different people.

Even volunteering for a few weeks can be a life-changing experience. It can be difficult to take time off work and raise funds, but if you have the opportunity then go for it. I would advise researching carefully where you are going, and always try to speak to past volunteers as they will give you an honest opinion on what it will be like.

What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself returning to the UK any time soon?

My plans for the future involve staying in South Africa and eventually trying to get my residency.

I can’t see myself moving back to the UK any time soon, unless I have to – I want to continue nursing and grow the Wild Inside Adventures agency. I am looking into other projects in South Africa and hope to add one or two more to offer to students over the next year or two.