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Becoming a Conservation Veterinarian

What is a wildlife veterinarian?
It depends on who you ask. There are many ways for a veterinarian to work with wildlife, including wildlife rehabilitation, zoo/wildlife/exotic species medicine, and free-ranging wildlife veterinary medicine, also called conservation medicine. In general, wildlife rehabilitators and zoo/wildlife/exotic species veterinarians focus on clinical medicine and the health of individual animals. Free-ranging wildlife veterinarians focus on the health of wildlife populations and ecosystem health.

Free-ranging wildlife veterinarians most often work for federal, state, or tribal fish and wildlife agencies (FWAs), or non-government organizations.  Working closely with wildlife biologists, the job of a free-ranging wildlife veterinarian is to provide technical expertise to the agency, to conserve and manage fish and wildlife populations, and help recover endangered species.

There is more than one way to become a free-ranging wildlife veterinarian, but all paths start with completing an undergraduate degree first then applying to vet school, although there are other routes for pursuing this career. 

Once accepted into vet school, you would complete four years to earn your doctoral degree—either a DVM or a VMD depending on the school. Vet school provides training in health and disease issues in a variety of species, as well as training in surgery, immobilization, and other clinical procedures that are often an important component of free-ranging wildlife medicine. 

If you are not accepted, speak with the schools you applied to and find out what you were lacking on your application. One way to significantly boost your chances of getting into vet school would be to complete a master’s degree. If the master’s was in wildlife ecology or a similar field, it would also help move you along the career path to becoming a wildlife veterinarian. A graduate degree in wildlife ecology can be completed before or after vet school. If you don’t get into vet school your first time around, completing a wildlife ecology master’s degree would be a good way to improve your application as well as prepare for your career in conservation medicine. You’d then be ready to go once you graduated from vet school.

Once accepted, many veterinary schools now offer education tracks, certificates, and other programs in wildlife medicine, one health, conservation medicine, and public health. Researching which programs are offered at different veterinary schools is a great way to ensure that you learn all you can during vet school.

veterinarian listening to panther

A few tips to consider to get the most out of vet school are:

  • Consider doing a master’s degree while in vet school. 
    Conservation-specific veterinary graduate degree programs, such as a Masters in Preventative Veterinary Medicine and a Masters in Conservation Medicine, are offered at several American and international universities and can sometimes be combined with a veterinary degree.  Earning a master’s degree in addition to the veterinary degree requires more than four years.
  • Complete externships, volunteer, or otherwise get involved in wildlife medicine. 
    Externships, paid or volunteer, in wildlife/conservation medicine will give you knowledge and experience and help you network. They will also help you decide if conservation medicine is the right fit for you. Many programs have a wait list of several years, so apply early.
  • Help design, conduct, and publish wildlife research.  
    Co-authoring a scientific journal article will be a strong addition to your CV when you apply for post-graduate programs and jobs, many of which require a background in research and publication.
  • Join wildlife organizations.
    Attending wildlife conferences is a great way to learn and network. These organizations usually have student pricing for both membership and conference registration. Joining or forming a zoo/wildlife club at your school would also help. Key organizations include the Wildlife Disease Association, the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, and the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine. Species-specific veterinary organizations also exist and are a great way to meet experts in a specific field. Most of these organizations host annual conferences and have associated journal publications.

After vet school, you might go on to do an internship and/or residency in zoo/wildlife medicine or a residency in pathology. You may also choose to do graduate studies to earn a master’s degree or PhD in wildlife ecology or a related field instead.

The advantage of doing a zoo/wildlife residency is that you gain greater clinical and immobilization/anesthesia skills. The advantage of doing a pathology residency is that you become expert in detecting wildlife diseases by evaluating body fluids, organs, tissues and cells.  If you earn a master’s degree or PhD in wildlife ecology, you gain in-depth knowledge about ecosystems, conservation, and wildlife populations.

Many wildlife health specialists working for state or federal agencies are not veterinarians but have specialized training in wildlife ecology with a focus on wildlife diseases, parasitology, or a related field. Going this route has several advantages including possibly reducing your education time and reducing student loans, which are sizeable for vet school.

Most free-ranging wildlife veterinarians working for state and federal wildlife agencies have a graduate degree in wildlife ecology or a related field. Not only does this form a good foundation in conservation and ecosystem health, but the degree may also help with job offers. Often the person hiring a wildlife veterinarian has a degree in wildlife ecology and may be inclined to hire a veterinarian who is also fellow wildlife biologist.

Completing vet school before your graduate degree has many advantages. With your veterinary degree, you would have a strong application and be better able to pick and choose graduate programs, especially those with a wildlife disease component. You could also supplement your income by practicing veterinary medicine part-time while in graduate school.  Also, as you near completion of your graduate program, you would be able to apply for wildlife veterinary positions and potentially finish your graduate degree while employed.