ABSTRACT: It was some 16 years ago that I had my first glimpse of 'exotics' in South Africa. It was then that my passion for wildlife and conservation began. After working as an animal keeper at West Midland Safari Park and being involved with veterinary procedures. I chose to follow a career path to become a veterinary nurse, in the hope that one day I would be using my skills with the species I had grown to love. This article gives you an insight into my career path job and the daily work as a senior veterinary nurse at a safari and leisure park.

When I left school 16 years ago I had no idea what career path to take. Whilst considering my options for the future I worked through a business course and in a retail outlet, until a trip to South Africa with a school friend made me realise what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

A trip to Kruger National Park brought me up close to African lions, elephants and a huge variety of big game. This was it! This was what I wanted to do. To work with these amazing animals and help to conserve their future.


I completed a course in animal care at Walford College in Baschurch, Shropshire, and during this course undertook work experience for a year at West Midlands Safari Park, Bewdley.

The work was mainly animal husbandry, but I loved it and when my course was completed I was offered a job working as a keeper.

Finally, after working my way up to a senior keeper position, I began to develop an interest in the veterinary work that was taking place, grabbing every available opportunity to be involved in procedures such as ‘de-antlering’ deer, routine foot care, and vaccinations. All of which usually involved sedations using the dart rifle.

I realised that this was the path I wanted to pursue and I started work experience on my days off at the park’s veterinary surgery. Then I was offered a permanent place and went on to gain my veterinary nursing qualifications.

When, four years later, a position for a permanent veterinary nurse opened up at West Midland Safari Park, it all seemed to fall into place. Exotics have always been my area of interest and it was a fantastic opportunity to work with the animals that originally won me over in Africa.

Monitoring anaesthetic of a white tiger (Panthera tigris) during a tail amputation

Nursing hurdles

The challenges of everyday park life are very different from practice. I am currently the only veterinary nurse here at West Midlands and we do not have a permanent onsite veterinary surgeon.

We work very closely with two expert local practices – one manages the ‘reserves’, which is split into the large hoof stock and carnivores; and the other practice deals with the reptiles, birds and aquatic mammals. We have a great partnership with the two surgeries and the vets are always on hand for advice and call-outs.

Daily jobs differ immensely too. Since starting at the park, I have devised a routine faecal worming programme for all the carnivores, hoof stock, aquatic mammals and small mammals – bearing in mind we hold 120 different species. Also a routine vaccination programme was put in place, together with a contraceptive programme for three of our carnivore species. So this in itself keeps me pretty busy.

I have been involved in many procedures, including artificial insemination on our African elephants and white rhinoceros, tail amputation on a Bengal white tiger, giraffe castrations, cheetah radiographs and exploratory surgery, fitting radio telemetry collars on African lions both here and at our sister park in Ongava, Namibia, and numerous calvings, ‘foot trims’ and wound treatments. In addition, I have been lucky enough to hand rear lions, tigers and involved with the rearing of camels, antelope and other species.

So as you can see, my daily routine can involve pretty much anything at anytime, which is great because it keeps me on my toes. But 1 feel 1 still have so much to learn which is why 1 have continued with my professional development by obtaining a City & Guilds qualification in Veterinary Nursing of Exotic Species. I also take opportunities to attend lectures by the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS), but find that I am always learning on the job. Becoming the regional co¬coordinator for the Midlands has also given me the chance to organise and become involved with CPD in the area.

Bottle-feeding 'Eric' the Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus)

Developing career

I think my previous nursing experience has been essential to my role here. There are aspects of it I have been able to adapt to the animals at the park, including wound management, laboratory work, worming and vaccinations.

Even though I am behind the scenes a lot of the time, I still have a lot of interaction with the public – involvement with corporate’ animal encounters with hand- reared animals gives me the opportunity to educate people about the species we conserve. And they are always very interested in what my job entails.

I have also been filmed on many occasions for television programmes and photographed for newspapers and magazines.

My role is always developing, with new species brought into the collection all the time – many of them critically endangered. This gives me the opportunity to learn about these new animals and their specialist care. In my time spent here at the park, I have found veterinary care for exotics is advancing in leaps and bounds and I am privileged to be one of the veterinary nurses closely involved in it. 

Collecting blood samples for FIV research from an adult lioness [Panthera leal at Ongava, Namibia

Hand-rearing Tippi", the white lion cub [Panthera leo krugen]


Lucy Ireland RVN MBVNA

Lucy (pictured here with 'Larry' the lion cub) qualified as a veterinary nurse whilst working in mixed practice in Worcestershire. She has been awarded the City & Guilds Certificate in Veterinary Nursing of Exotic Species and is currently working as the senior veterinary nurse at West Midlands Safari Park where she enjoys the everyday challenges that working wit
h zoo exotics brings.

To cite this article use either

001: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2011.00065.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 248-249

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 26 • July 2011 •