Learn how veterinary professionals have pursued and succeed in a career with aquatic animals, and how you can to
As future veterinary professionals begin to look at career options, many children dream about becoming an aquatic animal veterinarian professional. A dream like this is one can be achievable for those willing to put in the work and take the necessary highs and lows, but where exactly should those interested in becoming this kind of veterinary professional start?
During their joint lecture, “Aquatic Vet Adventures: The Basics of Being an Aquatic Animal Veterinarian” at the Veterinary Meeting & Expo (VMX) conference in Orlando, Florida, Jen Flower, DVM, MS, DACZM; and Tres Clarke, DVM, DACZM, explained the world of becoming an aquatic animal veterinarian, and how to stay there.
Once finishing veterinary school, the next step is applying for internships and residencies. Internships are typically 1-2 years and interns are being mentored by the primary clinicians. According to Flower, the interns during this time are primarily learning about the species but in a more integrative and interactive way.
“You're still working under the mentorship of the primary clinicians at the facility learning more about these species, but you're more integrated into the day-to-day than you are as a student who may only be there for 4-6 weeks,” Flower explained to attendees. “So this is really key learning time in your training to get that hands-on day-to-day experience, be a part of the veterinary team, a part of those emergency scenarios and all the things that we face daily as aquatic animal clinicians. My internship training was at Mystic Aquarium [and] this had a big focus on preventative medicine.”
Following an internship, Flower discussed the next step in her career was a residency program. Residency programs tend to be longer than internships, about 3-4 years, but residencies give a lot of exposure to training and aquatic medicine.
“Most of these programs in the US are designed to facilitate you to become a board-certified specialist through the American College of Zoological Medicine... But I think this was a really key component to my training and education in zoo and aquatic animal medicine and really set the foundation for my future,” said Flower. “The program that I did was a combined program through the University of Illinois, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. So this program really exposed me to most species that you can think of, that any zoo or aquarium will have in their collection I was exposed to during my residency.”
Flowers also warned attendees that being an aquatic animal veterinarian is fast-paced and constantly changing. She went into detail about how there are dramatic differences in giving anesthesia between these animals, and some do not have machines, requiring some creativity and flying on the edge of your seat.
Clarke emphasized to attendees the importance of communication when working with these animals. Talking to the zoo keepers, other staff, fellow veterinarians, and anyone else who would work on these animals with the veterinarian, whether liked or not, has to be communicated clearly.
“I know [communication] is kind of lame to say, but I can't tell you guys how much that in my role, how much this is important. We have meetings almost every week, I have meetings with my sea lion team, meetings with my penguin team, I have meetings with my vet team, [and] meetings with my dolphin team. It's all important to get communication across, it's really, really key. And it's very important when you have to communicate [information] to the higher-ups,” explained Clarke
“The zoo world, if you want to turn it into a small animal clinic or a large animal clinic, you have to think about the keepers as your clients… if you're in a small animal clinic, you can kind of fire clients if you don't like them. [You] can't really do that with your zookeepers all the time, or people that you don't like,” he concluded.
Clarke also described to the audience how being an aquatic animal veterinarian means being somewhat creative and quick on your feet. There is no book or product veterinarians can order to help treat these patients, so you need to be creative in making sure they are getting all they need but also safely. For example, he discussed a time when the team he was on used a leaf blower to keep an elephant under anesthesia.
He also said trying something and failing can be better than trying and succeeding because aquatic animal veterinarians learn more from their mistakes than their triumphs.
According to Clarke and Flower, mentoring and training veterinary students is a massive part of an aquatic veterinarian's job. This is crucial to the field because once Flower, Clarke, and other current aquatic veterinarians retire or move on from what they are doing, the next generation needs to be able to care for these animals in a safe way for both the veterinary professionals and animals.
Clarke T. Flower J. Aquatic Vet Adventures: The Basics of Being an Aquatic Animal Veterinarian. Presented at: VMX 2024; January 13-17; Orlando, FL.