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Behind the scenes at Paignton Zoo: A day in the life of a vet nurse

May is Vet Nurse Awareness Month. Vet nurses are unsung heroes, working behind the scenes to provide vital support to our veterinary team and ensure the welfare of our animals.

We caught up with Charlotte Busuttil, one of our fantastic Registered Veterinary Nurses (RVNs), to gain a deeper insight into her unique role in a zoo, find out what a typical day looks like and hear any advice she has for others interested in pursuing a career in veterinary nursing.

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Charlotte performs laser therapy on Bruce the echidna

Q. What inspired you to become a vet nurse and how did you end up working in a zoo?

A. Caring and nursing animals has always been my passion. I felt that to do this for the greatest number of animals in the most effective way would be by working as an RVN.

From very early on in my career, zoo and wildlife nursing has been my goal. To be able to nurse and care for animals while also having a positive effect on the conservation of critically endangered species all over the planet is really important to me.

I feel so lucky that I get to make a difference for so many animals in this role.

Q. What is a typical day in the life of a vet nurse?

A. The nurses here at Paignton Zoo are responsible for keeping the vet department in order, which includes a lot of cleaning and tidying. We need to always be ‘ready to go’ should an animal fall sick or need an emergency anaesthetic, so we have to keep the x-ray room and operating theatre clean and stocked up at all times.

When a zoo patient needs regular medication or intensive supportive care they are kept at the Vet Centre. Nurses work alongside vets and zookeepers to ensure the animals are kept as comfortable as possible, and often the nurses will be responsible for administering medication throughout the day.

Other involvements we have in the day-to-day care of animals include checking in on animals after anaesthetics, assisting and participating in animal training, and performing laser therapy on any patients with aches and pains relating to arthritis, skin issues or wounds.

Laser therapy has proven to be effective for many species, such as poison dart frogs

Q. How has the role of the vet nurse in a zoo evolved over the years?

A. The overall running of zoological facilities has changed significantly over the years which, in turn, has affected the role of the veterinary nurse. Even from the last 7 years of my experience working and volunteering in different zoos, I have seen a massive change in how the veterinary team approaches things like the administration of medication and the use of training for routine procedures such as vaccinations.

Q. Are there any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had in your work as a zoo nurse?

A. The first time I got to meet Pertinax our silverback gorilla.

He came into his off-show den, collected his comfortable shredded-paper bedding and placed it at his training station before sitting down, getting himself comfortable and placing his feet up against the mesh for us to examine and treat, all without any commands. He knew exactly what was happening and chose to come over and participate.

His reward was some fruit and watered down honey from a squeezy bottle!

Q. What do you hope people take away from your unique role?

A. My goal to make a difference to the largest number of animals possible. Working with Wild Planet Trust’s animals and conservation programmes, as well as their work teaching and educating visitors every day, is just about the best way I can do that. Being able to help so many animals and reach so many people is all I could have asked for in a career, and I feel very lucky to be in this position.

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Charlotte with vet Heather carrying out health checks on dormice

Q. What advice do you have for someone pursuing a career as a zoo-based vet nurse?

Persevere! These jobs are very competitive, but don’t give up. Take time to volunteer at zoos and wildlife hospitals to gain experience  – even if it’s a cleaning role to start with! It takes time to be confident handling and nursing wild animals, so starting in veterinary practice and spending some time getting used to handling more domestic animals or exotic pets to start with is another great way to gain experience.

The most important skills and qualities for this role are to be inventive, open-minded and hard-working! Every day is different and some of the situations we need to tackle are often not found in any textbooks, so it takes a lot of hard work and motivation to get to the best outcome for these tricky situations.

“Our veterinary nurses are highly trained professionals who play a crucial role in the day-to-day and long-term care of Paignton Zoo’s animals. From routine health check and taking samples, to administering medication and looking after our poorly patients, our veterinary nurses are the foundation of the veterinary team. I am honoured and proud to work alongside such dedicated individuals.”

Ryan Page, Head of Veterinary Services at Paignton Zoo

Find out more about what our zoo vets get up to behind the scenes. Watch the video below!