Leaving Zoo Veterinary Medicine the Hard Way: Lessons Learned
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2006
Janis Ott-Joslin1, DVM; Tim Reichard2, MS, DVM
1Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, AZ, USA; 2Dr. Tim’s Wildlife and Exotics Care, Toledo, OH, USA


Papers detailing how conflicts arise between zoo veterinarians and other zoo management staff, and proposing various conflict resolution techniques, have been presented at other AAZV conferences. This paper moves beyond these subjects, to identify which situations might be serious enough to result in job termination or loss. Veterinarians who have left their positions involuntarily often identify some contributing factors (such as personal backgrounds, personalities, poor conflict-resolution skills, zoo hierarchical structure, or institutional philosophy) which interfered with conflict resolution and led to the end of employment. Zoo veterinarians can learn to recognize these warning signs, identify which factors can be addressed and which are irresolvable, and avail themselves of advice, networking, and executive coaching in order to successfully transition through involuntary departure from zoo veterinary medicine.


We’ve all heard stories about our colleagues having been forced to leave a position they’ve been in forever. You think that you would be smarter or a better clinician and that it couldn’t possibly happen to you. As hard as it is to believe, there may well be a time when things go badly for you as a zoo veterinarian. There will be signs telling you that there is trouble ahead and that you may be voluntarily (under protest) or involuntarily leaving your employment. Unfortunately, we often don’t see it coming and we are ill prepared to deal with leaving employment the “hard” way. We hope this paper will help you to acknowledge that this outcome could happen to you, and that your reactions should not be fear or resentment, but proactive questions such as “How can I recognize and avoid this if possible?” “What if this happens to me?” and “How will I deal with it if I can’t avoid it?” In an effort to aid their colleagues, a number of veterinarians with firsthand experience in leaving zoo jobs the “hard” way were willing to share what they learned through this difficult experience through interviews. Certain common threads and lessons learned were identified and incorporated into this paper. In the discussion that follows, statements in bold italics are aphorisms that individuals found helped them through their difficult times, or that the authors felt were particularly appropriate to the circumstances.


You Really Haven’t Made It in This Industry Until You’ve Been Fired Once or Twice

Some zoo veterinarians stay or rise in a clinical position for their entire career, but this is far from the norm. There is no data on the length of time for a zoo vet’s employment in the same zoo. Some have estimated that it takes up to 5 yr for zoo veterinarians and directors to develop enough humility and mutual respect for each other to develop a good working relationship.9 If this never occurs, then the chances are good that the veterinarian will not be the one who stays employed at that institution. In addition, changes in governance, institutional philosophy, job expectations, co-workers, natural disasters, or one’s own actions can dramatically influence the zoo veterinarian’s likelihood of staying in his/her job. The individual may decide to leave voluntarily before being forced out or may end up leaving under duress (either being forced to resign or being fired). As is true in many other workplaces, zoos retain the “right to hire or fire” any employee. There is no implied “right” of employment until retirement age. Termination of employment can come at any time and for any number of reasons (stated or unstated.)

Conflict, Perceptions, and Communication

The reasons most commonly cited for involuntary departure from the zoo veterinarian’s job revolve around deep-seated conflicts between the veterinarian’s perception of his/her role in the institution, and the perception of that role (or how he/she carried it out) among key decision-makers (CEO/director, general curator) in upper management. Numerous papers which identify areas of potential conflict, and communication issues between the zoo vet and other animal management staff have been presented previously.3-20,22 Details regarding how conflicts arise, and conflict resolution techniques are not the subjects of this paper. However, veterinarians who have left their positions involuntarily often identify key contributing factors which interfere with conflict resolution and lead to the end of employment. These include lack of consensus regarding the zoo veterinarian’s job responsibilities, disparity of personal backgrounds or agendas, lack of effective conflict-resolution skills of the participants, lack of support for the veterinarian’s role (as the veterinarian understands it) within zoo hierarchical structure, complacency, or changes in institutional philosophy, finances, or goals.

Dr. _____ Cares Deeply for the Animals in His/Her Care, Sometimes He/She Cares Too Much

(Statement from a performance evaluation)

How can a zoo veterinarian care “too much?” Veterinarians tend to be hard-working, dedicated, compassionate people, often with deep empathy towards the animals under their care. We tend to work long hours and take our responsibilities for looking after the health and well-being of the animals under our care very seriously. Others may feel that “caring too much” indicates that we have lost perspective and have focused too much on an individual animal. Or it may be that we have neglected to make our institution aware (or institutional decision makers do not embrace the consequences) of the responsibility placed upon the attending veterinarian by the United States Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare regulations2 to ensure animal welfare at the zoo. We need to make sure our institutions understand and recognize that veterinarians are obliged to be advocates for the animals. And we need animal management staff to feel less threatened or territorial when animal welfare-related concerns are brought up. In recognizing and addressing “turf” sensitivity, veterinarians must use enormous skill, and may benefit from additional training in how to discuss such issues without stimulating serious, career-ending resentments. One approach is to ensure that the zoo veterinarian’s job description includes details on duties and responsibilities related to animal welfare, and specifies that the veterinarian must accompany the USDA inspector during facility inspections. The veterinarian must be aware of any animal health or welfare issues, and be empowered to follow up with corrective actions.

What Is the Difference Between God and a Zoo Veterinarian…God Knows That She Is Not a Zoo Veterinarian

A major area of job-ending conflict concerns lack of consensus between the veterinarian, animal husbandry staff, and/or the director, on the veterinarian’s role and level of authority in preventing or correcting husbandry or exhibition problems. Often, zoo veterinarians identify significant keeper and veterinary staff frustration with recurring medical problems caused by husbandry deficiencies. Zoo veterinarians are trained to consider husbandry improvements as a legitimate area of disease prevention, but may not have that authority recognized. He/she may not be allowed to participate in exhibit design, collection planning and diet decisions, or veterinary recommendations may be ignored. An independent panel of experts evaluating animal care at the National Zoo concluded that veterinarians should, in consultation with keepers, curators and the nutritional staff, have the authority and responsibility for animal health care decisions at the zoo. Another conclusion was that it should be clear to all parties that the veterinarians have final authority for health care decisions.1 Unfortunately this is not always the case in many zoos. The personalities of the involved individuals, and the openness and effectiveness of their communication skills usually determine whether conflicts are truly resolved, or simply turn into festering resentment on either side.

Recent changes in “zoo culture” can be a source of unresolvable conflict. There is an increasing trend for municipal zoos to be managed as nonprofit business corporations. This has changed a previous “animal-driven” culture toward a more “business operations-driven” culture. Zoo directors/CEOs, their board members, and donors increasingly see the zoo as a business, and animals are only considered as one important variable in business decisions. Business-oriented cultures place value on corporate terminology, strategic goal-setting, detailed decision trees and action plans, deadlines, calculated risk-taking, profit margins, cost-cutting, and job descriptions with clear performance-based measures. Some of these values are challenging for a veterinarian to apply. Deaths and medical records can be counted, but how can the veterinarian count the number of diseases or deaths prevented, or place value on the length of time invested in appropriate “bedside manner?” In order to increase gate receipts, curators and directors are under pressure to design, build and open cutting-edge exhibits with minimal cost and time, and it is easier for the general curator and director to move forward without addressing veterinary concerns. How can one quantify the value of a well-quarantined animal which has been allowed sufficient time to adjust well to its exhibit? This requirement to measure effectiveness is a new fact of corporate life, implemented to varying degrees in various zoos. Ultimately, the zoo veterinarian must be able to propose some way to measure his/her value to the institution and to prove effectiveness, within this new culture. This may require additional training in business communication skills and techniques. Alternatively, some veterinarians (like their physician colleagues in managed care practices) end up leaving the profession because their personal values conflict with the business values.

No Good Deed Ever Goes Unpunished—Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out To Get You

Other influences, such as the general economy, have affected the zoo industry. Financial pressures to get more money at the gate, reduce staffing costs through layoffs, and hold department heads accountable to do more with less, cut across all industries. In some cases, zoo colleagues believe that their departure was intended to cut the senior vet’s salary and retain the “cheaper” associate. There may also have been a perceived tangential benefit in getting rid of the experienced veterinarian, in order to change previous decisions or change the collection focus away from the experienced veterinarian’s perceived expertise.

The Only Group That Has Worse Politics Than the Zoo Are the Air Traffic Controllers

Why does conflict exist between the veterinarian and the director or general curator? In addition to previously published issues, deep differences in personal backgrounds, agendas, and personality preferences are often identified by former zoo veterinarians. Non-veterinarians may feel uncomfortable with veterinarians, if they consider the veterinarian to be academically superior. They may be suspicious of the vet, due to profound differences in background or personality. Perhaps they are jealous because they wanted to be a vet and didn’t succeed. Perhaps the zoo veterinarian’s interest in conservation or education threatens the curator’s desired job advancement. Many directors bond more easily with curators because they are former curators themselves, or they network together more effectively at American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) meetings. Some curators are more effective at providing good news (animal births, new animal acquisition ideas) to the zoo director, and the veterinarian is identified only with animal disease, death, or dire warnings about exhibits and costly changes. Some curators are just better politicians, and are more skilled in mirroring the director’s desires, interests, and goals.

When differences in perceptions and backgrounds are allowed to prevent consensus-building in animal decisions, compromise drops out of the picture. Many animal-oriented individuals (including veterinarians) have insufficient practice in developing adequate people skills to resolve personal or business conflicts. Neither side will give in, because each side believes that compromise will show weakness. In reality, compromise between the two should show strength, while building good will and mutual respect. When conflicts occur over and over again, they ultimately become power and control struggles where neither side allows questioning and both sides fear being criticized. Unresolved conflicts on small matters lead to conflicts on large matters, and the outcome negatively affects hospital staff, keeper staff and ultimately the animal collection. In order to prevent this, there must be mutual trust and respect between individuals, mutual commitment to consensus-building, and agreement that veterinary input into exhibit design, diets, animal introductions, collection plans, and other matters will benefit the animal collection.

The Influence of Zoo Hierarchical Structure on Conflict Resolution

Unfortunately, what often occurs in zoos with veterinarian-general curator conflicts is a stalemate, rather than a compromise, and both sides feel unappreciated and not respected. If both individuals are on equal standing within the organizational structure, then serious conflicts can be resolved by taking the question to the next higher authority, such as the chief operating officer or director. If that individual is a skilled manager, both sides are treated fairly and openly, a mutually satisfactory decision is made, and both parties are guided toward building early consensus in the future. However, former zoo vet colleagues report that some current zoo hierarchical structures interfere with effective compromise between veterinarian and animal husbandry staff. When the veterinarian reports to the curator, and there is a difference of opinion on an issue, the veterinarian runs the risk of either arguing with his/her direct supervisor, or going around the supervisor to the director for a final decision. In either option, the veterinarian risks angering the boss and inviting disciplinary action. This dilemma becomes even more implacable when the veterinarian asserts that deficiencies in animal husbandry are contributing to an animal health problem. Often, those husbandry decisions were made or enforced by the general curator, and the veterinarian is thus forced to criticize the boss. When hierarchical dilemmas occur, mutual trust and future consensus often become impossible, and the veterinarian’s job security is compromised.

Recognizing the Problem and Taking Effective Corrective Action

In many cases, former zoo veterinarians failed to recognize that small problems in conflict resolution or communication had built up to the degree that the job was threatened. As time passes, some zoo veterinarians believe that previous disagreements are successfully resolved, and move on to current cases. They also may rely excessively on their technical expertise, reputation, or skill in verbal interactions with one audience, and fall into lazy habits. In some cases, early self-critical insight may allow veterinarians to adjust their self perception, and take corrective actions or enhance their personal skills. Some veterinarians forge excellent alliances with keepers, but neglect to consider their reputation among upper management. The opposite situation also occurs. In order to identify this, consider your own role in the process/problem. If it is still early in the “game,” consider: How are you perceived by keepers, curators, and upper management when disagreements occur? Remember that perception is someone’s reality. If one person (a curator, general curator, your hospital staff, or the director) can make people perceive that you are being obstreperous and are not a team player, then this becomes a self-fulfilling prism through which all eyes will judge you. Consider how you respond to people and problems. Are you saying, “No, I can’t do that” or “No, that can’t be done because it will be risky to the animals.” Step back and ask yourself how you would respond to this kind of answer over and over again. Perhaps you should try a different tactic, try to put a positive spin on all situations, and appear agreeable. Instead, say “I can do that after I finish this…” or “That can be done if these things are done …to eliminate any problems for the animals.” You come across as being positive, cooperative, and a team player. Gaining insights into one’s perception by others, and enhancing one’s personal approach to daily business, can be improved through consultation with executive or life coaches. Consider asking for this help as part of your institutional personnel development plan, or consider privately investing in your own career development.

There Are No Sweeter Words Than “I Told You So”

The veterinarians we interviewed recommended several areas in which current zoo veterinarians should constantly assess their own performance, and try new tactics when necessary. They recommend against appearing to be a naysayer, by identifying potential serious problems which will cost the zoo money if something goes wrong. Zoo veterinarians should try to propose solutions rather than simply pointing out problems, and make it clear how preventing potential problems will save money and enhance both parties’ reputation and effectiveness. Statements should include “Here’s my comment on this situation, here are the risks and here are my proposals for how to reduce or eliminate those risks….” Veterinarians should always try to document that they tried to address potential problems before they occurred. They must persuade non-animal staff through positive explanations of consequences, while backing the veterinary perspective with hard facts.

!!Consider Being More Flexible So That You Can Tie Yourself into Knots

No matter how talented or well known you are, if you don’t treat people honesty, fairly, and with respect, relationships are doomed. There is also a tendency for a veterinarian to become complacent about his/her performance over time. You need to be more on edge, and recognize that you need to earn respect, every day and with every case. With every new curator and keeper, you must analyze how you will work with them and determine what each individual needs from you. Learn about different personality types, and match your expectations and verbal delivery to their perceptions of the world, the animals, and you. Be aware that failure to focus on each individual, and constantly re-earn respect and trust, could result in negative impressions that are passed on to others. Keep in mind that, unlike private practice veterinarians, your clients have not chosen you to perform a service and may not recognize the “value” of the services you provide. Your clients (keepers, curators, directors, and the animals) are “stuck” with you. If they do not like the way you practice medicine, they can’t go to another veterinarian, but they can work to get rid of you. Keep as objective as possible, and be willing to use different methods to persuade various individuals to support your point of view. As duties and time demands increase, it is tempting to cut corners or focus on required paperwork in order to meet deadlines. Do not neglect the chain of command, and meet frequently face to face with animal collection managers, supervisors, and keepers. Focus on customer service. Work at being seen and known as a positive, caring, competent zoo veterinarian who is a part of the zoo “team” and working with the best interests of the zoo animals and institution in mind.

I No Longer Need to Punish, Deceive, or Compromise Myself, Unless, of Course, I Want to Stay Employed

Always put the animal first. There is always room for compromise but not to the extent that your ethics and values are compromised. Spend more time bragging about what you do, quantifying the things you accomplish, money that you save, and problems that you help resolve. Make sure the curators and keepers are aware of your hard work. Print out MedARKS to show what you did that week, and provide quantifiable justification if you require additional resources. If questions are openly asked about your department’s function or efficiency, consider bringing in colleagues from AAZV and AZA to evaluate your program. It is better to be proactive in this regard, rather than having your boss do this or ask random zoo directors or curators for their opinions. Pick your battles carefully, and don’t ever think you know everything. Listen carefully, incorporate other perspectives, and give credit where it is due. Make your best decision and if you are not respected and treated with consideration, you should consider leaving.

Be sure you have good support staff who are working with (and for) you. Treat them with respect, give them support and ensure that you are respected and supported by them. If there are problems with your support staff, deal with them quickly and effectively. Utilize the services of your Human Resources department, and don’t avoid taking appropriate disciplinary action. The employee, who is not working with you, can become the person who is actively working against you. Be aware of the potential for problems when veterinarians are employed at your zoo in a non-veterinary capacity. Be pro-active in addressing issues, such as differences of medical opinion that might arise. Is the other veterinarian going to be involved (or be asked for a second opinion) on clinical cases or in emergencies? If so, keep them involved, committed to the same veterinary program principles, and subject to appropriate discipline if they engage in unprofessional conduct or undermine veterinary departmental effectiveness and cohesion.

A Good Scapegoat Is Nearly as Welcome as a Solution to the Problem

In order to avoid being kept out of the loop on decisions that should have veterinary input, take a proactive approach to being seen as agreeable, visible, and cooperative. Go out of your way to have face to face contact with upper management, including the board of directors, so that these individuals see you in a positive light. When dealing with the press, be careful to share the spotlight with the director, curators, or keepers. Remember that they all need their “15 min of fame,” and that sharing these experiences creates emotional bonds and common goals. Be careful to present yourself and your work to the press in a positive manner, and focus on the benefit of the animals. Doing so can only help engender a positive perception of you and your work in the public and staff’s eyes. This will be a benefit to you if troubles (internal or external) arise.

In many zoos, an Animal Welfare or Animal Health Board Committee has oversight on USDA issues or an IACUC function. Be sure that you are allowed to actively participate on this committee, since it can greatly support your cause. Work to ensure that this committee is not functioning in a watchdog or oversight role for the veterinary department. Make it clear that you, as the zoo veterinarian, must practice zoological medicine without being second guessed by a committee of non-zoo veterinarians. If your zoo doesn’t have faith in your abilities to provide quality care to the animals under your care, then you should consider leaving.

Recognizing Irreconcilable Differences and Moving On

Perhaps you did try to be positive and effective, are appreciated by the public, press and the board, but conflicts continue. Or perhaps you didn’t succeed and you are facing a boss who is trying to push you out the door. There will be subtle warning signs, for which you should be watching. Does your boss change frequently? Are you excluded from senior management meetings? Are you excluded from decisions and information, such as exhibit changes, dietary issues, and animal introductions? Are your recommendations ignored? Are other staff members rising in authority and recognition, while your authority declines? Near the end, there may be obvious signs, such as sudden change in previous glowing performance appraisals, disciplinary memos, and repeated meetings with your boss and human resources staff. Now you are still doing your job but you are perhaps compromising your veterinary program and perhaps the principles on which your work satisfaction depends. It is time to look into hiring a “head hunter,” keep an eye on the “positions available” section of the AAZV website, and start thinking about alternative career pathways. Consider taking on some part-time relief work, and brush up on your domestic animal skills (small animal medicine, equine, food animal). Consider employing the services of a career counselor to help get your resume up to date and explore your options.

Remember That a Kick in the Pants Is a Step Forward

Unlike curators, keepers, and directors, veterinary professionals have numerous other employment options to pursue within this field. You will find as a zoo veterinarian that you are better trained to perform these other job opportunities than you imagine. Consider your new job as a sabbatical from zoo animal medicine, a time to learn new things, try out something you have been wanting to do, hone your skills in a specific area and determine if you want to return to being a zoo veterinarian or not. You will likely find that you are greatly appreciated and respected in your new job, a feeling which you have been missing for a long time. Almost all of the individuals interviewed said that leaving their job was the best thing that could have happened to them. They were sorry that they stayed at their previous zoo as long as they did.

It’s Best to Avoid Standing Directly Between a Competitive Individual and His Goals

Ask yourself why you are staying. It may be for personal reasons, such as waiting for children to finish a school term or having a spouse/partner who doesn’t want to leave his/her job. Do you see yourself as the only one at the zoo who really cares for and defends the animals against exploitation by development, public relations, the general curator or even the director? Please recognize that the zoo will go on without you. In fact, it may be a better place if your replacement is a more effective advocate for the animals. Are you staying around because you don’t want to “lose” and allow your adversaries the pleasure of winning and pushing you out? Consider that you might not be the real problem; you might just be in the way of someone who is determined to have things done his/her way. When you find that you are letting your boss or co-workers define who you are and how you practice medicine, and when your vision of the zoo diverges from that of your boss and/or your board, start looking for another job. You need to evaluate how you want to grow personally and professionally, and how the institution is likely to grow. If either of you are not on the same path, or if you recognize that you feel negatively about the zoo and zoo management, you have lost your effectiveness; you need to move on.

Recognize the signs that your body is giving you, including lack of ability to fall asleep, lack of energy, lack of appetite, irritability and extreme pessimism. If you dread going to work and facing another meeting, this is a “red flag” indicating that you should go. Take counsel from your friends, colleagues and especially your family, as to how the job is affecting you. They often see things more clearly than you can.

The Politics Are So Bad Because the Rewards Are So Small

Be aware that colleagues and family may not understand what you are going through and may try to convince you that things aren’t as bad as you make them sound. It’s not that they don’t care about you; they just can’t understand the situation you are in. You may even doubt your own perceptions, or your own value and expertise. So, take counsel from professionals; utilize the Employee Assistance Program (although the zoo may have access to some of this information) or invest in a private counselor. Consider seeking counsel from the human resources department (particularly if your zoo is under the auspices of a larger municipal organization) but be aware that there may be hidden political agendas at play between the zoo and that entity. It is also highly likely that your boss has also sought the advice of the HR department, and is working directly with them on your disciplinary issues. The department works for the institution, not for you. Talk with other zoo veterinarians who have had similar experiences. Before things escalate, seek legal advice so that you know your rights.

!!I’ve Been Thrown Out of Better Places Than This

If you decide to fight to keep your job, seek legal counsel, carefully document all interactions with your supervisor, have your notes notarized shortly after meetings, and keep a close eye on your personnel file (so you aren’t caught off guard if your supervisor tries to slip in a disciplinary memo without giving you a copy). Thoughtfully and unemotionally respond to memos concerning job performance issues and make sure that copies of your replies are lodged in your personnel file. Your legal counsel should clearly explain the pros and cons of pursuing a lawsuit against your employer. Be wary of a lawyer who tells you that you “can’t lose”—get a second opinion! Evaluate the financial and emotional costs of filing a lawsuit. Carefully consider what you would consider to be an acceptable settlement. There are risks and benefits to pursuing a lawsuit, not only to yourself but to your family and to the zoo. Carefully consider whether you want to go public with your grievances. Are you prepared for the potential scrutiny of the press? Are you willing to put your loved ones through a public ordeal just to uphold your beliefs? Are you willing to take the risk of being perceived not as a righteous “whistle-blower” but as a disgruntled employee? If you wish to remain within the zoo profession, consider what effect going public may have on your reputation, and your future.

Never Have a Pissing Contest with a Skunk

Recognize that effective consensus and teamwork always require both sides to exert maximum effort toward mutually agreed-upon goals. Some individuals and institutional cultures simply do not share the same core beliefs, goals, priorities, and values as the zoo veterinarian and they are unlikely to work effectively toward a solution. Recognize that you might be working with individuals that have pathologic destructive personalities and hidden agendas.6,21 These are people who can be found in any business and are often very personable but lack any conscience and are out to succeed at any cost. Removing yourself from this work environment may be your only recourse since they will only tolerate your success if it serves their needs.

Find Your Aim in Life, Before You Run Out of Ammunition

Finally, the day comes and you are called into your boss’ office, the head of human resources is there, and they hand you “the memo.” It indicates that you are being asked to resign or that you are being fired. There may be any number of reasons—organizational, professional, administrative, personal, managerial—cited for your dismissal. Your clinical competence may be called into question. None of these reasons may seem valid to you. As difficult as it is to accept, the bottom line is that they want you to go away. You will no longer be working at “your” zoo.

Whether you decide to resign with a settlement, get forced to resign, decide to sue or go to the press, you’re out of a job. In your heart, if you fight your dismissal you will likely hope to be reinstated in your old job. In reality this rarely happens. When you leave your office for the last time, you may have no other job prospects. You are likely never to come back to your zoo again. Losing your job is one of those life experiences (like the death of a loved one or divorce) that have profound long-term impact on your life. It is hard for others to understand the mystical experiences that are a part of being zoo veterinarian, such as raising a baby gorilla or assisting in the successful artificial insemination of an elephant. Leaving a zoo career is like being forced to give up driving a “classic Jaguar” and start driving a “classic Gremlin.” Both cars will get you somewhere, but no one is proud of the latter. This change is never easy to live through, but you can come out of it a stronger and wiser person. Full psychologic recovery can take a very long time.

You may wish to seek employment elsewhere in the zoo industry. If that is the case, carefully consider your part in being forced out of your old job. Recognize that you may have to take proactive measures in order to avoid having your job applications summarily dismissed. Carefully review what happened to you, and seek objective outside counsel on how you might have handled things differently. Be smart, learn from your mistakes and don’t fall into old, ineffective, self-defeating patterns. Seek the counsel of other zoo veterinarians. As difficult as it may be at the time, consider networking with colleagues and putting forth your version of what happened. It may surprise you how many people are sympathetic and understanding. Many have experienced and survived similar experiences. Don’t be embarrassed that you have been “let go” or “forced out” of a job. Anyone who works in the field knows that bad things can happen to good people and that the politics of zoo life can result in excellent, competent veterinarians losing their jobs. Attend AAZV meetings, as you will be surprised at the number of people that will come up to you to provide support and tell you how much better you look since you left your zoo job. It is hard to swallow your pride and come to the meeting when you feel that you’ve been a “failure” or may be the subject of gossip or pity. Remember that zoo veterinarians are a unique collection of individuals, and are the only people who can really understand what you’ve been through. You will realize that they are a supportive group of colleagues and maybe even compassionate and caring friends.

Zoo veterinarians who may be prospective new employers of “cast-off” zoo veterinarians should take the time to contact these applicants and find out their side of the story. Don’t make assumptions about why someone left (or was forced out of) a job. If the applicant wasn’t successful, take the time to personally tell them why he/she didn’t get considered or didn’t get the job. Be honest with them. Treat them as you would want to be treated if you were in their place.

There Is Life After Zoo Veterinarians and Surprisingly It May be Better; There Is Also a Life Parallel to Being a Zoo Veterinarian—Invest in It

Learn to seek creative activities away from your work that you can escape to. Take time to be with your family, and actively participate in the lives of your children and your family. You only have one chance in life to do this. Above all, remember that you are not your job, and your job is not your life. There is life outside of work. Work should be what we do in order to allow us to live our lives. We shouldn’t be living to work.

Summary of Key Concepts

  • Veterinarians must be well versed in the contents of the animal welfare regulations and how the veterinarian’s role is defined in oversight of animal welfare.
  • Ensure that your job description accurately and fully describes your responsibilities, as attending veterinarian, for safeguarding animal welfare. Make sure that animal management staff are aware of this aspect of your job description, and understand that this means you need to be actively involved in animal management decisions.
  • Get to know your USDA inspector well enough to be able to call him/her for clarification on the regulations or for assistance when problems arise.
  • The veterinarian should report to the director, not to a general curator. Negotiate for equal standing with the general curator within the organization.
  • Safeguard yourself as soon as you realize that a problem might be brewing. Seek legal counsel so you will know your rights; carefully document meetings and, if appropriate, have your meeting notes notarized shortly after the meeting.
  • Keep a close eye on your personnel file so that your supervisor can’t slip in disciplinary memos without you being aware of them.
  • Thoughtfully respond to your memos from your supervisor. Make sure that copies of your correspondence are lodged in your personnel file.
  • If you are not happy in your present job, carefully assess the situation and decide whether it might be better to move on rather than to stay and risk becoming frustrated, ineffective, and embittered. Consider your overall health and well-being. Is the job worth it?
  • Be honest enough with yourself to say what sort of environment you will be most comfortable and successful in.
  • Be true to yourself and who you are; let go of who you are not. You are not your job. You are not in a career; you are in a job.


The authors wish to thank the anonymous individuals who generously provided insight on their situations so that others might learn from their experiences. Although these individuals are only known to the authors, they are outstanding individuals in the field of zoo veterinary medicine. From these interviews it was apparent that they have survived horrendous situations and by their participation in this paper they have shown themselves to be true friends to all of us.

Literature Cited

1.  The National Academies. 2005. Animal Care and Management at the National Zoo: Final Report. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

2.  Animal Welfare Act of 1976 (Public Law 94-279), Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 9 (Animals and Animal Products), Subchapter A (Animal Welfare), Parts 1, 2, and 3.

3.  Bielitzki JT. 1981. The dynamics of confusion. Proc. Am. Assoc. Zoo Vet. Annu. Meet. Pp. 146–147.

4.  Brown JK. 1996. Welcome to the revolution-otherwise known as, innovate or evaporate: the seven characteristics of innovative people. Proc. Am. Assoc. Zoo Vet. Annu. Meet. Pp. 302–305.

5.  Burton MS. 1993. Scientific study in a small zoo. Proc. Am. Assoc. Zoo Vet. Annu. Meet. Pp. 293–300.

6.  Cavaila AA, NJ Lavender. 2000. Working with Narcissists, Orderliness, Sociopaths, Schizoids, and Others. New Harbinger Publication, Inc., Oakland, CA.

7.  Foster WR. 1999. The care and feeding of your director. Proc. Am. Assoc. Zoo Vet. Annu. Meet. Pp 149.

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Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Janis Ott-Joslin, DVM
Phoenix Zoo
Phoenix, AZ, USA

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