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Challenges in the Career of a Wildlife Veterinarian


Being a veterinarian is a very passionate and compassionate job by itself. Veterinarians are trained to communicate with the patient owner and examine the patient to come up with a diagnosis and treatment regime. There are various diversities a veterinarian can venture out apart from the regular small and large animal practice, viz. disease diagnosis, vaccine production, pathology, poultry sciences, dairy industry, applied sciences, laboratory animal, one health programs, wildlife, forensics etc.

Career of a wildlife veterinarian: I have chosen my career to be a wildlife veterinarian, wherein I get to practice with wild animals both in captivity and free-ranging. My inspiration started when I was in school where my father took me to the forests of the western ghats for his research projects. As my interest grew, I started going for elephant, and tiger census in the western ghats and then volunteered with CWS for a while. In the meantime, I started to pursue veterinary school. Soon after graduation I joined the Bangalore Zoo and mentored under Dr Chittiappa who was an Assistant Director there and learned about captive and free-ranging wild animal veterinary practices from his decades of experience in the field. My wife whom I also met at a zoo, Dr Nikita, who is also a wildlife veterinarian,  is my beacon and my support for staying and pursuing the field.

Fare data about the animal history: As a wildlife veterinarian, in free range, you do not have the luxury of talking to the owner and identifying the problem of the animal. Maybe in the zoos, we get a fare data about the animal history, but still, things are always out of the box. Keen observation of the animals, and knowing their natural behaviour in free range and captivity plays a very important role in treating the ailing animals along with all the data which you can gather from the personnel working for these animals, they could be a keeper, forest official, biologist, curator and a public witness.

Animals stuck in conflict: In free-ranging animals, I have worked with animals stuck in conflict with humans, telemetry studies, rescue and rehabilitation. With Most of the animals, it is a very tricky situation working as you will have to take up responsibility for animal safety, personal safety,  personnel safety and public safety. I have learnt to work with certain plans and protocols of safety and man management to make my practice hassle-free. Some of the animals I worked with include tigers, elephants, leopards, deer, gaurs and other small mammals in the state of Karnataka.

Faults in the management: In captivity, most of the animals fall sick due to faults in the management of the animals. As all the factors are controlled any breach in the control leads to a major part of the veterinary practice in captivity. A small part is where the animal is sick with some cancer or genetic problems. Captive management includes shelter, feed, water, temperature control, animal mental and behavioural care, enrichments, cleanliness, vaccination, general veterinary practices, etc. When we fail to implement these practices by the book, there are all possibilities of an animal becoming sick, either physically or mentally. As veterinarians, we do encounter various cases across all species having gotten sick or mutilated when things are not followed. As in the case of humans, we will have to treat the animals with a proper diagnosis and eventually correct the causative agent to prevent further incidences.

Diagnosis of the problem, a constraint: To approach an animal for treatment there are many ways to do so. The primary is prescribing oral medication. Other medications include physical and chemical capture of animals or remote drug delivery systems. I wouldn’t prefer that physical capture as it is very stressful for the animal and may or would eventually lose the animal to capture stress shock. Chemical immobilization is something which I prefer and have practiced in my career with most of the mammalian land species enabling me to achieve my diagnosis and treatments. Diagnosis of the problem is something which may be a constraint in the field of wild animals. 

Different species and different places: As I worked with different species and with different places, I got to work with many of the land mammals but somehow my interest would lie with the felids. Apart from all the difficulties which we face we still have the dedication to serving these animals in one or the other way. Many of our colleagues have even left the field of wildlife due to some hardships faced by them.

Some of the challenges which I faced during my journey were: 

1.  Blinded for any diagnostic procedures: Wild animal anaesthesia is always a problem, most of the animals in captivity do not get permission from the authorities to be sedated for clinical examination or any other procedure other than a physical emergency (including escaping of animals, infighting with other animals or attacking humans). This makes the veterinarian blind for any diagnostic procedures. The reasons behind the authorities denying permission are fear of losing the animal in sedation, self-preservation if the animal dies if given permission, lack of knowledge about anaesthesia doses and factors, and fear of facing media. The doses of anaesthesia are pretty much standard across the world, it is very unethical and not practically possible for a veterinarian to load a lethal dose of a very safe anaesthetic. If death occurs with a regular dose, we must understand that the animal doesn’t have any history of such, it has been through a lot of stress before the anaesthetic, and any pathological conditions could lead to the same. Instead, in most places in this country physical capture is practiced.

2.     Diagnostic and surgical infrastructure is lacking: Diagnostic and surgical infrastructure is lacking in the field and small hospitals both in govt and NGOs. Funding such infrastructure, equipment, on training staff may not be possible with small budgets. Generally, budgets are met only for the basic infrastructure, basic feed (locally sourced), salary to the staff taking care of these animals, basic veterinary requirements and drugs. So that again fails to give the best treatment for the animals.

3r  Proper recognition and incentives: Lack of retaining well-experienced staff including veterinarians with proper recognition and incentives. 

T   Files are still pending after resigning for almost 3 years now: Wildlife Veterinary Division comes under the Forest dept in India, and veterinary services are provided by only interested veterinarians in the Department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services. Then the doctor must apply for the inter dept transfer for 5 years maximum. This procedure includes with loads of paperwork which must be complied with by both departments and often gets pending. My files are still pending in the department regarding my final pay out after resigning for almost 3 years now. 

 a  Always a challenge for the veterinarian: Challenges in free-ranging animals are influenced by multiple factors like an animal (type of animal, species, weight estimation, stress, sex, pregnant females, age etc.), environment (terrain, water body, desert, human dwellings), climatic variants (sunny, cold or rainy), anaesthetic drugs and functional fully serviced darting equipment. If any of this list has a red flag it is always a challenge for the veterinarian to capture the animal. 

6.    Loss of life by attack of animal or mob, death: Lack of public knowledge on the rescue process, and emotions of people due to their personal losses. With these backgrounds, the public may hinder the rescue operations causing delay of work, mob outbreak, loss of life by attack of animal or mob, death of animal etc. 

7.   Male chauvinism: Lady veterinarians always face a hard time in the field due to harassment by the mob, some male officers believe women can’t do the job, and night duty is discouraged by the officials even if the veterinarian is ready to work due to security issues, staring by the male public mainly during the time of work or catcalling. With all these difficulties a women veterinarian still struggles in the field performing their duties only with interest towards wild animals as efficient as their male counterparts. These women are also not recognized and supported by the organizations. 

   Veterinary field in India is still developing: The Veterinary field in India is still developing as compared to foreign countries. The vet schools are still teaching students to cater to the basic needs of rural India. They are not training them for advance practices. I feel most of the monetary funds are being utilized for making new colleges and infrastructure rather than improving and modernizing the existing facilities.

9.   Unavailability hampers many procedures: Most of the drugs available in foreign countries are not marketed in India. These drugs may include most of the anaesthesia, lifesaving drugs and equipment. The unavailability of these hampers many of the procedures.

10  System lax in producing competent para-veterinary staff: Para-veterinary staff or veterinary nurse training programs are still oriented towards large animal insemination, pregnancy diagnosis, injection delivery and wound management about large animals primarily. The lack of opportunities and demand for professional veterinary nurses makes the system lax in producing competent para-veterinary staff.

11  Not even basic needs will be there: Some of the stays during the capture program or at the site of posting of the veterinarian is difficult, sometimes even basic needs will not be there.

12  Conviction is quite high: In vet legal cases we might have to go the court as an expert or if any cases would include a veterinarian for malpractice the risks of getting convicted in wildlife are quite high which would make the veterinarians not join the field. 

-D-Dr Sujay Suresh  


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