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Why I love working with exotic pets


Welcome to the amazing world of animals that hop, slither and soar through the doors of the veterinary practice where we work every day.

My name is Angela Cerone, and I'm a front-office manager. It's Monday at 7:55 a.m. I got to work just 10 minutes ago. I'm trying to water the plants outside the animal hospital before the morning rush. But the phones are ringing, cars are pulling into the parking lot with owners rushing to drop off their pets so that they can get to their jobs and I'm the only person here. This probably looks and sounds exactly like any other veterinary hospital—until you see the first client step out of his car and walk toward the front door carrying neither a dog nor a cat but a kinkajou. That's right, a kinkajou.

What's a kinkajou, you ask? I had no idea, either, until I started working at the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics—an all-bird and exotic animal hospital where we treat only birds, ferrets, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, hedgehogs, sugar gliders and, yes, the occasional kinkajou.

A kinkajou looks like a little bear but is actually a member of the raccoon family. I had only seen animals like this on television before I started working at the practice. The same is true for 6-foot-tall wallabies and mini-pigs that are so small they fit into teacups. The greatest thing about working in an all-bird and exotic animal hospital is that I never know what kinds of animals will walk in the door next. Colorful parrots, huge green iguanas, spiny hedgehogs, fuzzy chinchillas—we see them all.

A world of wonders

In my previous job as a receptionist at a typical small animal practice, I knew what to expect: cats, dogs and the occasional rabbit or guinea pig. But at an all-exotics practice, we often see 10 different species in one day. The animals come in for many of the same reasons that the dogs and cats at my previous job visited: not eating, acting lethargic, having bloody stool or experiencing difficulty breathing. But what's different about the pets that come to an exotic animal hospital is that familiar problems, such as not eating, can go on in some exotic animals, like reptiles, for six months or more. Plus, bloody stool, a problem commonly seen in mammals, can occur in birds for completely different reasons, such as egg binding—when eggs get stuck inside the bird—an often life-threatening condition.

Why specialize in exotic companion animals?

As the main receptionist, I do many of the same things as I did in my previous job—greet clients and patients, answer phones, take payments, check emails, make boarding reservations, scan medical records and order products and supplies. But more than my previous cat-and-dog practice, this job is always challenging me in new ways. Not only am I always learning new facts about all the different types of animals we treat, but I'm also constantly expanding my responsibilities. For example, because it can be difficult to convince exotic pet owners that their pets, just like dogs and cats, need preventive medical care, we often have to work extra hard marketing our services and justifying costs to clients. To do this, I have the huge responsibility of generating email and social media marketing for the practice. This is one area of my job that I both love and hate at the same time. It's difficult to think creatively about marketing when you're answering three phone lines ringing all at once. But, it's also rewarding when you send out a mass client email reminding pet owners that their exotic animals are overdue for examination, and 20 clients call to set up appointments.

Special pets, special clients

While I have always enjoyed working at the busy front desk of an animal hospital, helping pets and people, I seem to develop a closer personal relationship with exotic animal owners than I ever did with cat and dog owners. I think this happens because exotic animal owners know that at this hospital, they are in a place that accepts them and welcomes their pets and doesn't think that they're odd for owning them. This is not to say that some of our clients aren't just a little different, like the woman who cradles her pot-bellied pig in her arms and wheels it around in a stroller, or the cockatoo owner who pays us extra to have our veterinary technicians wear decorative masks and dance around to entertain her bird when it's boarding. But for the most part, our clients are just regular, nice people who love their pets as much as any dog or cat owner loves theirs.

What should team members know before taking a job at a multi-species practice?

Most clients just really want to do the best they can for their animals, and they ask me many questions about how to do this or that with their pets. I love to chat with them and give them advice. What frustrates me most, though, is when a client neglects their pet or refuses the best medical care for it because it can be inexpensively replaced, like a hamster or a parakeet. I also get aggravated when clients ask me the same question over and over because they're not paying attention, or when they call with a problem with one of their pets and refuse to tell me about it because I am "just the receptionist." In fact, I actually know so much more about exotic pets than I ever did about dogs and cats because I'm constantly absorbing new knowledge and learning from the rest of our exotics-savvy team members.

Sometimes I wonder how I got here. I had no idea a year and a half ago, when I answered an online ad for a part-time reception position in what sounded like a really different kind of hospital, that the job would evolve into a full-time front desk management position. I have to admit, as a ferret-obsessed owner myself, I was drawn to this job because all I could think about was how great it would be to meet and help ferrets and their owners. Plus, I hoped I might even get some free care for my own ferrets. Little did I know it that I would soon develop friendships not only with other ferret owners, but also owners of all kinds of other crazy creatures.

Angela Cerone is front-desk manager and Dr. Laurie Hess, DABVP, is owner of Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics in Bedford Hills, N.Y.

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