Sara Shopland describes her job as a privilege, whether she’s treating tiny stick insects, caring for giant gorillas or teaching about exotic creatures.
“Every day I work with incredibly passionate and knowledgeable people, and we work together towards a great cause – helping save endangered animals from extinction,” says the resident vet at Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project.
Sara is one of four veterinary surgeons employed by the conservation charity and, together, they look after all of the diverse species housed at the zoo’s historic Clifton site and park near Cribbs Causeway, which opened in July 2013.
“We perform anaesthetics and emergency procedures, create health care and diet plans, check animal imports and exports and teach students about exotic animal care,” Sara tells Bristol24/7.
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The veterinary surgeon admits that working with any animal can be challenging. “They can’t tell us what is wrong or where they hurt,” she explains.
“We can’t approach zoo animals like we can cats and dogs, so we have focussed a lot on animal training over the past few years. We are now able to get x-rays, blood and urine samples from many of our animals conscious, without the need for an anaesthetic.”
Paige Bwye (main photo), a senior keeper of mammals at Bristol Zoo Gardens is similarly enthusiastic about her role.
“The best part of the job is learning something new every day,” she says. “For example, when an animal you have worked with for years does something you have never seen before.”
Paige’s primary responsibility is to provide care to a range of exotic mammals, as well as to support and develop the zoo’s team of mammal keepers.
Each working day includes a variety of tasks, from cleaning animal houses and checking the inhabitants are safe, to feeding each animal a specialised diet, administering medication and providing the animals with challenging enrichment.
Picking a career highlight, Paige says: “In 2015 our nocturnal lemur, the aye-aye, gave birth to twins which is a world-first for the species.”
She adds: “One challenge of working in a zoo is maintaining constant vigilance and excellent observation skills to spot when an animal might be sick as each species is unique. In 2008, research published on obesity in captive lemurs made a huge impact on how we care for our primates. There has been a shift from feeding primates fruit to feeding them vegetables, which are much healthier for primates.”
Reflecting on the veterinary industry as a whole, Sara says there has been welcome progress in development of more advanced diagnostics, such as CT and MRI scans, but she adds: “Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, we have to be more selective with how many diagnostic tests we perform. It is only because of our close relationship with the University of Bristol Veterinary School that we are able to perform many of these advanced procedures.”
Boasting on-site, first-class clinical facilities, the University of Bristol Veterinary School is a leader in its field and was ranked in the top 20 in the world in the 2019 QS Top Universities index.
Students benefit from a combination of research-fuelled teaching at both its primary home at Langford and the main city campus. The expansive Langford site has equine and small animal referral hospitals, a dairy farm and diagnostic laboratories, as well as farm animal, small animal and equine practices.
The range of courses on offer – from an BSc veterinary nursing degree in companion animal behaviour to an MSc in global wildlife health and conservation – indicates the breadth and depth of job opportunities available in the sector.
Prospects are good for graduates, with 97 per cent of Bristol’s veterinary science and 100 per cent of its veterinary nurse graduates in work or carrying out further study within six months of graduation, according to 2016/17 figures from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education. Dr Sue Horseman, a lecturer in clinical companion animal behaviour, vet school international director and admissions tutor, says this trend continues.
Breaking into a highly competitive field, with an emphasis on higher education and work experience, can pose challenges for people from lower socioeconomic background.
While national figures on the extent to which this is an issue are not easy to come by, research by the Institute for Employment Studies for the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, published in 2007, found financial constraints can be a barrier to entry for some.
This is not the only challenge for the sector. In November, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) published a manifesto of ten pledges for political parties to consider. Brexit concern topped a list that also included calls for animal care to be added to the curriculum and for all animals to be protected by law.
Launching the manifesto, BVA president Daniella Dos Santos said: “We are at a critical time for animal health and welfare, and the future of our profession.
“Our manifesto of ten pledges draws together the most pressing topical issues that matter to our members. Unsurprisingly, Brexit has taken the top slot. BVA has not taken a position in favour of leave or remain, but our council reviewed the evidence and concluded that a no-deal Brexit would have serious consequences for our workforce, and animal health and welfare.”
Along with technological advancements, the animal care sector is branching out from traditional practices to meet societal shifts.
Veterinary charity PDSA launched a state-of-the-art £250,000 PetWise Mobile Unit in November, funded by money from the People’s Postcode Lottery.
Portishead was one of the first stops on a national tour for the new 18-tonne unit, which will be used to provide a variety of services, including vaccination clinics and free pet MOTs.
Speaking about her role, Stephanie Post, a senior vet at Bristol PDSA, says: “Charity vet care does require a specific skillset – our team must be able to work in a very busy environment, be adaptable, but also empathetic to our clients, who can often lead more challenging and unpredictable lives.
“We cover everything from routine vaccinations and neutering, to more complex procedures such as orthopaedic surgery.
“Providing care for pets whose owners would otherwise struggle to afford it gives our staff a united sense of purpose and passion for our job.
“With this comes challenges too. In a society facing austerity and pressures on the public welfare budget, we have seen an increase in demand for our services over recent years.
“Within the sector, I think the biggest change is the increased popularity of brachiocephalic (short-nosed) breeds, such as French bulldogs and pugs. This has resulted in vets seeing more breed-related conditions, and many need surgeries to correct defects. Education is key to us supporting owners with these pets and helping to promote better examples of these breeds.”
The dogs making a real difference to people’s lives
Julia Winters is a full-time dementia community dog handler with the charity Dogs for Good who uses the techniques of Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI).
“Together with my community dog, Georgie, I visit people with dementia, and alongside a healthcare professional, we work towards helping them to achieve goals such as feeling more confident and connecting with their community,” she explains.
Julia also works with partner organisations to deliver social events called ‘Dog Days’. These are open to people with all stages of dementia and enable people to interact with well-trained pet dogs to encourage social interaction.
Speaking about her job, Julia says: “I love that each day varies and can range from training Georgie, to working with a client or setting up a Dog Day.
“One of the main challenges with AAI is funding for new projects, however more people are starting to understand the benefits of AAI and local authorities are beginning to recognise the value of improving therapeutic outcomes in a way that is also cost-effective.”
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