A vet for all, within and beyond the walls


Words by Sarah, Melbourne Zoo veterinarian

When people think of a zoo vet, they usually think of elephants, giraffes, lions and all the big animals. I often get asked how I can possibly know everything about so many species. And most people assume that every animal I care for lives at the zoo.

But what if I told you some of my favourite creatures are no bigger than your hand, that I am not an expert on every animal at Melbourne Zoo, and that many of my patients don’t live at the zoo at all! Let me explain.

Before I came to work at Melbourne Zoo nine years ago, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what life as a zoo vet was like. But something I realised straight away is that this job is full of surprises, and there is so much more to being a zoo vet than I could ever have imagined.

It’s true that we have a lot of different animals to care for at the zoo, and they really do come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s also true that I’m not a leading expert on every single species here and I don’t know absolutely everything about every individual animal who lives at the zoo.

I do, however, have more than 100 years of combined veterinary experience in my colleagues around me. And I do work with incredible keepers who share a special bond with the animals they care for and understand them intimately as individuals. As zoo vets, it’s the team around us that help us confidently care for what sometimes seems like a mind-boggling array of all creatures great and small that call Melbourne Zoo home.

I am fascinated by the relationship I have with the animals here. I spend so much time thinking about them and yet it’s funny to think about how they spend so little or no time thinking about me. I adore them, but it’s a very one-way relationship, and so it should be. As a vet I’m happy just being the person in the background, advocating for their health and welfare.

But there’s so much more to this job than caring for the animals that live at the zoo.

Our amazing Melbourne Zoo Marine Response Unit is out at Victoria’s beaches, rivers and lakes every day, helping seals, birds, turtles and all sorts of marine animals in trouble. Many of these animals are brought back to the zoo, where the vet team is involved in treating injuries, removing entanglements and helping to rehabilitate animals after surgery.


Some of the best moments of my work are when an animal that came to us injured or malnourished is fit enough to be released back into the wild with a second chance at life.


And then there’s our involvement in the zoo’s threatened species programs, something I didn’t realise I would get the chance to be part of when I joined the zoo all those years ago. Zoos Victoria works with 27 endangered local species, and as vets we were part of these ground-breaking conservation programs.

The Baw Baw Frog, Southern Corroboree Frog, Eastern Barred Bandicoot and Lord Howe Island Stick Insect are just some of the endangered species I have been lucky enough to work with. As vets we advise on quarantine and biosecurity protocols, monitor population health, and contribute to plans for wild releases. Lots of zoo vets around the world work with lions and elephants and tigers, but not many are as lucky as me and get to work with Baw Baw Frogs!

The terrible bushfires in the summer of 2019/20 also reminded me how so much of my job is about caring for animals that don’t live at the zoo. I had been to bushfire triage centres before, but what we experienced at Mallacoota was on a whole new scale for me. Big fires in multiple locations, and so many animals affected. We worked such long days, and it was so exhausting, but the community of Mallacoota stunned me with their kindness, their generosity, and their passion for their local wildlife.

Community members – some of whom had lost their own homes – would turn up to volunteer, all motivated by a love for Mallacoota’s koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife. It was incredibly heart-warming and an experience I will never forget.

After almost a decade in the Melbourne Zoo vet department, I still love the complexity and the drama of my work. Whether I am caring for one of the zoo’s famous lions, gorillas or elephants, a wild seal or seabird, or a small, endangered frog that few people know about, working here is a daily adventure.

Every day I walk past those meerkats near the front entrance and see how busy and happy they are, and they make my heart sing. The variety of animals can seem a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s also part of the excitement of the job. I love the challenge •

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