Read more to find out more about different ways you can work with wildlife as a veterinarian!
There are plenty of opportunities out there for wildlife vets, however the most important things you need to know up front are 1)wildlife jobs are much harder to come by than other jobs in vet med, and 2)wildlife vet med pays a lot less than other vet med jobs. On a related note, given the scarcity of the positions, you would have to be okay with moving around in order to follow jobs. A lot of students who enter vet school with a zoo/wildlife interest change their area of interest during vet school.
I do not mean to discourage you, but want you to know the current reality as far as job options go. However, I do believe the demand for wildlife vets will increase as humans increasingly to put pressure on the human-wildlife interface yet try to maintain "love of wildlife".
Now for the fun stuff!!
As a wildlife vet you can work for many organizations, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA (wildlife- agriculture interface presents important disease transmission), nonprofit conservation organizations, or various public health organizations like the CDC (most emerging diseases these days are zoonotic, meaning vets are essential to understanding, treating, and preventing further outbreaks - Ebola, Avian Flu, West Nile... and a LOT more!), for example.
Most vet schools have unique opportunities for students interested in wildlife medicine- Colorado State has a program with Alaska on orcas, moose, grizzly bears; UC Davis has a free-ranging wildlife residency (post-DVM specialty training) as well as the SeaDoc Society externship for vet students; U of Florida has a marine mammal program, for example.
During the summers in vet school, many students go abroad to do research projects or to get clinical experience with wildlife, such as with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Gorilla Doctors, MarVet, or Darwin Animal Doctors (Galapagos!).
Another thing to think about is what capacity you want to work with wild animals- there is a huge difference between working with captive (zoo) vs. free-ranging wildlife.
Free-ranging wildlife veterinary medicine is more hands-off, project-based, less medicine is practiced and a lot more veterinary research will fill your days. Instead of treating wild animals as patients, your veterinary degree informs your understanding specific health-related data that you collect on wild animals. For example, you may go take nasal swab samples from 100 sea lions to test for the presence of a certain virus, and use your knowledge of veterinary medicine to determine the meaning of the results. Expect to have many more days of sitting at a desk analyzing data or writing than hands-on activities, and working with anesthetized or dead wildlife or looking at animals from afar or by videorecordings. Free-ranging wildlife medicine is great for those interested in understanding the effects of human activity on populations and informing policy that protects wildlife and their habitat.
Working with captive/zoo wildlife actually allows you to be MORE hands on, and allows you to really practice medicine- both individualized and herd health- and have a deeper connection to the animals because they are your long-term patients and you get to know all of them well as individuals and are extremely important to their welfare. Furthermore, zoos are usually associated with conservation projects and can give you the opportunity to work on free-range wildlife conservation projects.
Another option is wildlife rehabilitation medicine, where your species (in the US) are mostly urban wildlife (coyotes, foxes, squirrels, turtles, songbirds, owls, raptors, raccoons, opossums...) but full time positions at one of these nonprofit hospitals are not readily available.
Fish medicine is another interesting combination of captive and free-ranging wildlife medicine. This can be a tough field to get into- not too many jobs available- but I know a couple fish veterinarians who persisted and moved around based on job availability and currently work for their state's Fish and Wildlife. Fish are farmed as a food animal but then released into the wild for human recreation (fishing). Their aquaculture and health needs to be managed well to prevent diseases from being transmitted to wild fish. Fish veterinarians can also work in private practice treating pet fish and koi, either for breeding operations that supply pet stores or for fish owners. Yes, veterinarians even can anesthetize and perform surgery on fish!
Two other areas of vet med I'd recommend to anyone interested in wildlife vet med are 1) laboratory animal medicine and 2) pathology. In Lab animal medicine you have the potential to work with a huge variety of species, practice hands-on individualized and herd medicine, and advocate for animal welfare and advance both human and veterinary medicine. Lab animal vets work with primates, fish, rodents, rabbits, dogs and cats, and farm animals and usually work for a University or a Contract Research Organization. Lab animal medicine also happens to be one of the highest earning specialties in vet med!
In veterinary pathology, you also have the opportunity to work with diverse species, even though they are not alive. You can respond to wildlife crises to determine the cause of death. Check out https://www.fws.gov/lab/jobs-2010-05-14.php
The number one thing you can do if you are interested in becoming a wildlife vet is to get experience in those areas and talk to actual wildlife veterinarians. Some suggestions on how to do that:
-volunteer or do an internship with a wildlife rescue/rehab center
-go abroad on a veterinary volunteer trip to work with elephants or other species (WorldVets, Vida Volunteers for example)
-start volunteering at a zoo or aquarium that has a veterinary hospital and ask if you can shadow or help out in the hospital
-if you are in a state that has a vet school, get in touch with admissions or even via a vet school student organization facebook page and ask if they can connect you with vet students who are interested in wildlife. i'm sure every vet school has a wildlife medicine club!
-contact your state's Fish and Wildlife office and ask if you can shadow a wildlife vet- unless they are really busy, most vets love the opportunity to inspire the next generation of veterinarians.
Some California options I am familiar with and highly recommend are the Lindsay Wildlife Museum (Walnut Creek), Wildlife Care Association in Sacramento, the Marine Mammal Center (Sausalito), and International Bird Rescue and Rehab (NorCal and SoCal locations).
Articles in this blog are oriented to readers interested in becoming veterinarians.