Zoo Veterinarian Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

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A zoo veterinarian's median annual salary is around $87,590, but is it worth the significant education requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a zoo veterinarian is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Zoo Veterinarian Career

Zoo veterinarians work with animals in zoos and other environments to improve and maintain the animals' health and prevent disease. They often work with a vast array of species and interact with zoo personnel on matters of animal maintenance and treatment. Read on for some pros and cons of becoming a zoo veterinarian to see if it seems like the right career choice for you.

Pros of Being a Zoo Veterinarian
High job growth (employment expected to increase 12% between 2012 and 2022)*
High salary (median annual veterinarian salary in 2014 was around $87,590)*
Might get to work with exotic animals**
Variety and challenge in daily tasks (conduct physicals, instruct zoo staff, plan nutrition programs)***

Cons of Being a Zoo Veterinarian
Requires significant schooling (professional veterinary medical degree)*
Field is competitive, both professionally and academically (fewer than half of applicants to veterinary medical schools in 2010 were accepted)*
Irregular hours (25% of veterinarians worked more than 50 hours per week in 2010)*
Distress of witnessing injury, illness or death of animals*
Potential danger inherent in working with animals, especially large and wild species*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **North Carolina State University, ***American Association of Zoo Veterinarians job posts.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Zoo veterinarians oversee the care of wild and exotic animals in zoo or other wildlife-related settings. They examine, diagnose and treat zoo animals (who are often anesthetized for examination) and may perform surgery, administer medication, devise rehabilitation plans or recommend euthanasia. They help plan animal diets, contribute to animal environment design and supervise the quarantine process of animals coming into the zoo.

Veterinarians at zoos interact frequently with other zoo personnel about animal health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment approaches. In some environments, they may perform research on topics such as disease prevention or wildlife conservation measures.

Salary Info and Job Prospects

The median salary for veterinarians in 2014 was around $87,590, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); the majority of vets earned between $53,000 and $157,000 annually. Veterinarians were expected to see 12% job growth between 2012 and 2022, which was about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Job Requirements

Education and Licensing

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) programs typically can be completed in four years and follow the acquisition of a bachelor's degree. A limited number of U.S. schools offer DVM programs, and those that do tend to be competitive.

Licensing is required for vets in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to the commonly required national exam, some states require passage of state-specific exams to obtain licensure. Additionally, licensure for one state may not accepted by others, so you'll usually have to acquire licensure from each state in which you want to practice.

Other Skills and Qualifications

Zoo veterinarians must have strong communication skills and the ability to work as a member of a team. As a zoo vet, you'll need to collaborate with other animal keepers on matters of animal monitoring and care, and you'll likely seek the assistance of outside experts and colleagues for feedback and advice when you encounter animal symptoms or behavior new to you. A sensitive and caring outlook is also important for anyone doing veterinary work because animals who are frightened or in discomfort require kind and attentive care. In addition, you'll need the physical adeptness and self-possession to work with large or potentially dangerous animals. Problem-solving and decision-making capabilities are helpful for diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Job Posts from Real Employers

As a zoo veterinarian, you'll likely be called on to work irregular hours to care for animals, so employers may request schedule flexibility in applicants. Depending on the position, you also might coordinate programs or oversee other personnel, such as veterinary technicians, so management and supervisory skills are can be helpful. Here are a few real job postings for zoo vets from April 2012 to give you an idea of what employers are looking for:

  • An Ohio zoo was seeking a veterinarian to care for the zoo's animals and participate in research and teaching instruction in conjunction with local higher education institutions. A DVM and at least three years' experience with zoological medicine was called for.
  • An animal theme park in California advertised for a staff veterinarian to care for exotic land and aquatic animals. The capacity to work in a team environment and experience with large animal care or in a zoological environment were required qualifications.
  • A zoo in Arkansas was looking for a vet to oversee the healthcare of the zoo's animals as well as the quarantine processes of outgoing and incoming animals. The position supervised other personnel and involved handling logs and reports.
  • An Oregon zoo sought a veterinarian to work under the senior veterinarian in an environment currently undergoing expansion and focusing on the conservation of energy and water. The hire would diagnose and treat animals, contribute to new exhibit designs, work on strategies to lower disease transmission and administer animal preventative medicine.

How to Maximize Your Potential

Prepare for Vet School

Given the competitive nature of academic veterinary programs, there are things you might want to look into before you apply for vet school. Work experience in a vet clinic or health science field can give your application an extra push over the competition as can volunteering at an animal shelter or working on a farm, the BLS reports. Taking undergraduate courses in subjects such as mathematics, social sciences and especially health sciences (biology, anatomy and microbiology) can be helpful in bolstering your application to veterinary medical programs as well.

Get Experience

Though individuals who have acquired their DVM and become licensed are eligible to begin practicing as veterinarians, seeking out additional experience after you graduate may give you an edge in landing a job, according to the BLS. Especially given the specialized and less common nature of zoo work, completing an externship, residency or fellowship in a zoo environment can provide invaluable experience and give you an advantage over other candidates.

Earn Certification

Zoo veterinarians can seek board certification through the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM). Applicants must have completed an approved DVM program, earned licensure and written a minimum of five publications in zoological medicine. Additionally, they must have completed a minimum of three years of full-time postgraduate experience, or six years of part-time postgraduate experience, in an ACZM-approved zoo medicine training program under the supervision of an ACZM diplomate.

Alternative Career Paths

If you're looking for a career that requires less schooling that zoo veterinarian, or one that draws a higher salary, you might consider the choices below.

Wildlife Biologist

If you want to work with animals, you might consider a wildlife biologist career. A wildlife biologist researches the behaviors, reproduction and health issues of wild animals and other wildlife in natural or monitored environments. This job includes studying the ways human actions impact wildlife populations and may involve interaction with the public or makers of public policy regarding conservation recommendations. Being a wildlife biologist doesn't require nearly as much schooling as being a zoo veterinarian, though you will need a bachelor's degree and may want to pursue further education in order to advance in the field. The median salary for wildlife biologists as of 2011 was close to $60,000, according to the BLS.

Physician

If you feel like working with animals may not be your area of interest, but you still like the idea of providing healthcare, you could become a physician. This job has many specialty options and also requires a considerable amount of schooling - a bachelor's degree and a 4-year Doctor of Medicine program in addition to a number of years in residency or internships is usually required - but according to the BLS, the average salary for physicians was around $185,000 as of 2011.

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