ABSTRACT: The purpose of this article is to give an insight into vet nursing in zoos, focusing on the routine day-to-day activities undertaken; and highlighting some of the differences from private practice, whilst touching on the critical conservation aspects. Working within the zoological field requires teamwork and efficient communication, to ensure safe management of the dangerous animals in the collection – whether during their regular health checks, or for those occasional emergencies!

I have worked with ‘exotics’ for over ten years. Before beginning my veterinary nurse training, I worked in education in an animal care environment. I was employed as a trainee exotic’ nurse, during which time my passion for the subject grew. I now have the privilege of working as a veterinary nurse at Bristol Zoological Gardens.

 Zoo nursing varies greatly from practice, in that the patients are not domesticated. Moving an animal into the veterinary clinic takes teamwork, time and a great deal of experience from the keepers, whose job it is to catch and safely transport the animal from its enclosure to the veterinary department (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Some of our fantastic mammal keepers doing the heavy work'

Bristol Zoo employs two nurses -the head nurse, Kellie Wyatt, and me. Between us we carry out a wide range of duties. Many are similar to those encountered in practice – from booking clinical work experience with vet students and qualified veterinary surgeons, to maintaining stock levels within the department.

Day-to-day maintenance, cleaning, laboratory work and management of clinical areas are the responsibility of the nurses (or students under supervision of the nurses).

Bristol Zoo veterinary department is very proactive, with preventive medicine taking up much of our time. Most of the animals have schedules which dictate how frequently each species is seen for a health check.

The clinics are planned weeks in advance and patients – ranging from reptiles and amphibians to birds and mammals – are booked in for specific time slots; although (just as in practice) emergencies obviously take priority over routine clinics (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Emergency knock-down of an Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica)

Routine health checks invariably involve a general anaesthetic. The health checks vary slightly between species, but the usual procedure consists of a physical examination, recording an accurate body weight, whole body radiographs – lateral and VD or DV views – scanning or implanting of microchips and taking blood samples for haematology and biochemistry (Figures 3-7).

Figure 3: Dental radiographs of Asiatic lion, Kamal

Figure 4: Lateral radiographs of a turtle (note that the X-ray tube head is moved rather than physically turning the turtle on his side)

Figure 5: Some of our more amenable patients (usually our reptile friendsl tolerate conscious samples being taken and. where possible, this is implemented

Figure 6: Angel fish anaesthetic

Figure 7: Health checks involve a full clinical examination. Here a six-banded armadillo (Euphractus sexcinctus) is having his ears checked

Occasionally further tests will be run for more species-specific problems; for example, monitoring blood cholesterol parameters in meerkats, which, when combined with the implementation of a dietary management programme, ensure that the health of our group is maintained.

 Rectal/cloacal swabs are taken and sent to external laboratories, where they are cultured for bacteria – checking for Salmonella, Campylobacter and Shigella spp. in primates. Avian species are also tested for Chlamydophila spp.

Ultrasound and ECGs are taken and stored. The results we obtain are shared internationally via a couple of computer programmes – ZIMMS and MedArks – and this is helping us to learn more about the species we are keeping and conserving (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Ring-tailed lemur [Lemur catta], having an ultrasound examination during a health check, but also as part of a research project

Obviously, some of the animals encountered are very dangerous and require ‘darting’ with anaesthetic before anything can be done safely. This can be a very stressful time for all involved and requires an entire network of people to execute a procedure quickly, safely and efficiently. Some of the larger species are seen on section’ – in their enclosures, off show to the public – r
ather than transporting them to the vet block.

These sessions involve a lot of preparation by the nurses, ensuring all necessary equipment is gathered, transported across the zoo and set up in time for the procedure to take place. We have a checklist that we follow for on section’ procedures, ensuring that no essential items are left and allowing emergencies to be dealt with immediately. Transporting the equipment and consumables across the zoo generally takes some time and, when on section, the patient is likely to be unsettled, so setting up is usually done as quickly as possible to avoid unnecessary stress to the animal (Figures 9 & 10).

Figure 9: Working with the young animal, with positive reinforcement, aids handling when they become adults. Head nurse, Kellie Wyatt, with infant Tapir (Tapirus terrestris)

Figure 10: Head vet, Michelle Burrows, darting the Asiatic lioness, under the watchful eye of her mate. Kamal

In some of the larger species, such as the gorillas, okapi and seals, training for veterinary procedures is important. Usually one day per week a veterinary staff member will visit an animal on section’ and work with the keepers to train basic commands and behaviours. The okapi are given pedicures, where their feet are lifted, examined and, where necessary, trimmed/filed.

The seals are being trained to lie still in sternal, lateral and dorsal recumbency for different periods of time which would aid sedation-less radiography. They are also becoming used to the idea of having their abdomens palpated and a stethoscope being used – although stethoscopes are incredibly scary for a seal!

The keepers routinely ask the seals to open their mouths, allowing dental checks and oro-pharangeal swabbing – without losing fingers – and can even apply topical medications, such as eye drops easily! Eventually we hope to perform conscious venipuncture (Figure 11)!

Figure 11: Desensitisation to a stethoscope during a routine training session with one of our South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis)

The gorillas are being trained to present their chests, for auscultation and their ears for taking temperatures, some also present their fingers for lancing to obtain a blood glucose sample and blood smears. Gorillas are a huge attraction at Bristol Zoo and are the face and a focus of one of our conservation projects (of which there are many). Bristol Zoo supports Ape Action Africa (AAA) formerly CWAF, raising funds to help conserve and protect gorillas in Cameroon.

We also monitor UK native species, such as the white-clawed crayfish, as part of Bristol Zoo’s involvement in the captive breeding programme for this species – with the South West Crayfish Partnership (SWCP). This is a collaboration between Bristol Zoo Gardens, Avon Wildlife Trust, Bristol Science and Conservation Foundation, Bristol Water, the Environment Agency and Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust.

Monthly ‘enrichment’ meetings are held with members of different sections, at which we discuss and plan further daily ‘enrichment’ across the zoo – from the spectacular insects to the mighty gorillas. We all feel that providing new and stimulating activities makes for a happier collection of animals, and happy animals help to create healthy animals.

Zoos were originally set up for entertainment purposes but have progressed much further during the 21st century. They are now major contributors to conservation and species survival; so education is a major contributing factor to the enhancement of visitor experience.  

As a consequence of all these factors, I find working as part of the Bristol Zoo veterinary team is challenging, varied, exciting and incredibly rewarding. 


Adina Valentine RVN Cert Exotics MBVNA

Adina is head nurse in a mixed veterinary practice in Monmouthshire, and works part time at Bristol Zoo. She has a Certificate in Exotics and is a clinical coach, currently studying ethics and welfare.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00217.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 350-352


• VOL 27 • September 2012 • Veterinary Nursing Journal