FunNature & AnimalA day in the life of a zoo vet

A day in the life of a zoo vet

Modern zoos are very different places than they were just a few decades ago. Initially they were little less than collections of live animals in captivity, taken from the natural environment and whose behavior was totally altered. More recently, they have become environments for the exhibition and dissemination of animal life.

Currently, zoos are important centers that are supported by three main pillars.

On the one hand, dissemination, education and awareness , work that they carry out on a daily basis showing animals in the least artificialized state possible, trying to preserve their normal wild behavior as much as possible.

On the other hand, they are research centers that actively collaborate in the production of scientific knowledge, to the benefit not only of human knowledge, but of the animals themselves.

Finally, they are centers for ex situ conservation and breeding , that is, the preservation of species in controlled environments outside their natural habitat. A task that allows repopulation to be carried out if wild populations are decimated by some environmental problem.

A zoo works like a complex machinery in which many parts must carry out their work in an efficient and coordinated way: keepers, managers, researchers… and veterinarians . Every modern zoo needs these professionals.

Cecilia Sierra atendiendo a un lince ibérico

Cecilia Sierra tending to an Iberian lynx (Alfredo Gargallo, Selwo Aventura)

The day to day of a zoo veterinarian is difficult to describe briefly. In the words of Cecilia Sierra, head of the Selwo parks veterinarian , “there is no day like another.” Although they do have certain routines, any unforeseen event can alter the veterinarian’s schedule.

Normally, the day begins with the review of the animals that are in treatment. The veterinarian then meets with the curator, managers and caretakers of each zone of the park, who will report any abnormal behavior observed in the animals.

If any of the animals show signs that they need veterinary attention, the team goes into action and the animal is observed. If it is a mild and easy to detect ailment, treatment is started immediately, but if the strange behavior indicates something more serious or non-specific, then anesthesia is considered to carry out the relevant tests prior to treatment.

Before caring for or even removing an animal from a shared enclosure, it must be separated from the rest . Sierra highlights the case of antelopes: “they are very competitive among themselves and when one animal shows weakness, the rest will try to attack it; we even have to barricade the anesthetized animal with vehicles to prevent others from approaching”.

In addition, it is necessary to ensure that the animal is completely asleep before being handled, especially if it is a dangerous species. “For example, if a lion has collapsed, we have to make sure that it is completely ‘KO’ before going in there,” says Sierra.

That hierarchical dominance in some species often makes it difficult to identify health problems. Their instinct tends to lead them to appear healthy , even when they are sick, since showing symptoms can provoke attacks from their companions.

This translates into a great effort by caregivers when it comes to detecting health problems. But they are highly qualified personnel and very aware of the welfare of the animals in their care, and they usually detect problems in time. In fact, Cecilia Sierra assures that the majority of deaths in the parks are due to problems associated with age.

Cecilia Sierra atendiendo a un bisonte europeo

Cecilia Sierra tending to a European bison (Alfredo Gargallo, Selwo Aventura).

Not all cases of anesthesia and removal of animals are due to health emergencies. Sometimes, these tasks are scheduled, for example, to carry out maintenance or improvement work on the facilities of a venue.

Anesthesia is administered using compressed air anesthetic weapons , rifles or pistols, although Sierra indicates that they sometimes use blowguns for small animals, to which the pressure of the impact of the dart can cause damage.

The monitoring of the health status of the animals is so constant that, even in these scheduled actions in which anesthesia is not performed for veterinary purposes, it is used to extract blood and tissue samples, to carry out analytical tests and control biopsies. Sierra highlights that these monitoring tasks are very relevant, especially with endangered species. “In some cases, whole blood and tissue samples are sent to freeze and supply a ‘biobank’ that preserves them”. A biobank is a type of facility that stores, analyzes and, if necessary, distributes biological samples from animals, for research and conservation purposes.

The team of zoo veterinarians in Spain is not very large. It is made up of general practitioners, covering a wide spectrum of study, aided by a huge number of guides and manuals , and with access to the most recent studies. Cecilia Serra compares her functions and attributions with those of general practitioners, who take care of the patient from the start, for any common problem, but when they come across something that is out of their competence, they refer it to other professionals.

“For very specific problems that we don’t usually work with on a daily basis , we have external partners .” On many occasions, they are from small animal clinics. “For example, when we have to do an endoscopy, we notify a colleague from Malaga; we anesthetize the animal, stabilize it and prepare it, and she does the endoscopy”.

The work of a zoo veterinarian is hard, sometimes he has to deal with very complex situations. But at the end of the day, Cecilia Sierra assures that she enjoys her vocation, and “there is no day that she doesn’t want to come to work.”


Isaza, R. 2014. Remote Drug Delivery. En G. West et al. (Eds.), Zoo Animal and Wildlife Immobilization and Anesthesia (pp. 155-169). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/9781118792919.ch11

Kreger, M. et al. 2010. Ethics of keeping mammals in zoos and aquariums. En D. Kleiman et al. (Eds.), Wild Mammals in Captivity: Principles & Techniques for Zoo Management (pp. 3-10).

Tseng, F. S. 2019. Specialized Equipment for Wildlife Care. En S. M. Hernandez et al. (Eds.), Medical Management of Wildlife Species (1.a ed., pp. 23-27). Wiley. DOI: 10.1002/9781119036708.ch3

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