Amy L. Shima, DVM
This paper provides some thoughts and observations about what factors would cause someone to voluntarily leave the “dream” job of clinical zoo veterinarian, as well as a brief discussion about some of the options that people who have left clinical zoo medicine have pursued.
The job of a zoo veterinarian is perceived by many to be a “dream” job—glamorous, fulfilling and challenging. That the number of students interested in zoological medicine as well as the number of postgraduate training opportunities specific to the field has expanded greatly over the past 20 yr bears witness to this perception. Successfully pursuing a career in zoological medicine requires hard work, dedication and maybe a little luck. Why then, one might ask, would anyone who has a job as a zoo veterinarian want to leave the field? This presentation will attempt to shed some light on some of the factors that play a part in zoo veterinarians deciding to choose to pursue life “outside,” and on where they go after escaping from the confines of the zoo.
Why would someone want to leave the dream job of working as a zoo veterinarian? The brief answer is that something has caused the person to wake up and realize that the reality is different from the dream. In some cases, the person comes to realize that the dream has become something more like a nightmare. Other times, the wake-up call comes from circumstances outside of work. Sometimes, the choice to leave is a pro-active move to avoid ending up in a situation where involuntary removal from a job is a likely outcome. For some, economics play a factor in the decision to leave work in a zoo. The income potential from working in a private practice can be considerably more than the salary of the average zoo veterinarian.
Satisfaction with work seems to be one of the common reasons cited for with making the choice to leave a zoo. A reality of zoo work is that one has to deal with economic, time and political factors that may impose restrictions or limitations on the ability to fully pursue investigation of clinical problems. This can result in frustration at having to spend time just “putting out fires” (especially when the same fires seem to flare up time and time again) and eventually lead to job “burn out.” The realization that the fun has gone out of work is frequently cited as a reason for choosing to leave clinical zoo work. Some individuals recognize the early signs of “burn out” and act to change their situation before it become untenable. Often these individuals leave work in clinical zoological medicine for new and different challenges in related fields such as pathology or academia. Some express satisfaction at being able to more completely pursue cases—being able to find out “why” something happened rather than just having to deal with the immediate problem. Others note that being out of the zoo, they have to justify and find financial backing to pursue investigation of an interesting clinical case or disease outbreak, whereas in the zoo situation they left behind, they might have been free to pursue a case that was of interest without having to justify or fund the investigation. In general, zoo veterinarians who have chosen to leave a traditional clinical job and go into different related fields express satisfaction at the change and seem to relish the different challenges that their new jobs present.
Individuals may also leave for the more uncertain but also more autonomous world of work as a relief veterinarian, or as an independent contractor working off grants or contracts with NGOs or government agencies. The key descriptive term when it comes to doing relief work or working as an independent contractor is “uncertain.” An independent contractor must actively solicit work, formulate proposals, and successfully apply for grants to fund the work. Opportunities to work as an independent contractor or as a relief zoo veterinarian are sporadic and dependent on unpredictable factors. There is neither job security, nor financial stability. There can be months without any work. Unless one is in the enviable financial position of not needing a regular source of income, one needs some sort of “back-up” job that can provide income but will also allow taking time off when relief work opportunities arise. Working as a relief veterinarian or an independent contractor is not a job for someone who wants a low-stress, familiar, comfortable work environment. It is a field best suited for someone who is highly adaptable, skilled at quickly assessing new workplace “cultures,” and flexible in how they approach clinical zoo medicine. Moving to a new location and starting a new job score high in stress factor rankings and are two of the essential elements in relief work. The willingness to “pull up stakes,” sometimes on relatively short notice, leaving home and family for a length of time that may vary from weeks to months is another factor that must be considered by anyone considering work as an “itinerant” zoo veterinarian.
Negotiating work conditions and figuring out licensure requirements for a relief position can be challenging. While salaries for zoo veterinarians have improved, it is still not uncommon for zoos (or sometimes even zoo veterinarians) to think that a “relief vet” rate is exorbitant, even when that rate is comparable to rates charged by private practice relief veterinarians. Traditionally, zoo veterinarians have accepted salaries that are much lower than those they would be earning in private practice. The occasional zoo veterinarian will, based on lifestyle choices and family responsibilities, choose to leave the field for the more lucrative realm of private practice. A relief zoo veterinarian is essentially in private practice, providing the same services as a small animal relief veterinarian, with additional special skills and experience unique to zoological medicine. In negotiating contracts for relief work, the lack of fringe benefits (which would normally be provided by a zoo to its employees) should be taken into account. The veterinarian must provide for private health insurance, professional liability insurance, temporary accommodation and incidental expenses associated with living away from home, and must cover all of this while maintaining a separate “home base.”
Family-related circumstances such as pregnancy/maternity leave or family leave to care for an aged parent or other relative with a serious illness are, in the author’s experience, the most common reason that a zoo relief position opens up. Ironically, these same circumstances can be the reasons why one might choose to leave a full-time clinical zoo position. The opportunity for relief work may also present itself when a zoo is searching for a full-time, “permanent” veterinarian. Whether the temporary lack of a “permanent” veterinarian is due to the voluntary or involuntary departure of the previous veterinarian carries implications for the relief veterinarian. The degree of difficulty of a temporary position can be quite variable and dependent on the unique circumstances of the situation. For example, a temporary position that opens up due to involuntary departure of the incumbent zoo veterinarian can be a very challenging and stressful situation. Zoo relief work isn’t a career option that will work for everyone. It requires a different outlook on zoo work, an ability to adapt to how other people practice medicine, and the willingness to accept financial and job instability. But for the zoo vet who doesn’t want to work at a “permanent” full-time job, but isn’t yet ready to completely leave the field, relief work or work as an independent contractor may be viable options.
Individuals who go into zoological medicine tend to be type-A personalities: hard-working, compassionate, goal-oriented, creative problem solvers. As such, when faced with the realization that work as a clinical veterinarian isn’t as fulfilling as it once was, some choose to move up within the zoo hierarchy. The challenges associated with moving into positions that deal more with policy and implementing programs are cited as the impetus for some to move beyond the boundaries of clinical zoological medicine. It is not uncommon to see veterinarians transition from positions as clinicians to department heads or even zoo directors. There have also been cases where a senior veterinarian finds that he/she has become mired in the meetings, management and political issues and identifies that situation as the source of diminished job satisfaction. Some choose to leave such a position for one which will involve more clinical and less management work.
The pressures and responsibilities attendant to work as a zoo veterinarian, and their effect on quality of life, play important roles in the choice to leave the world of clinical zoo medicine. Striking a balance between the responsibilities of a job that is intellectually, physically, and sometimes emotionally demanding and having a “normal” personal life can be very challenging. Childcare, spouse, or partner career choices, personal or family health concerns and the baby-boomer issue of caring for aged/infirm parents are all considerations that have caused zoo veterinarians to leave the field. Because of the physical demands of practicing zoological medicine, age-related health conditions may cause some to consider leaving behind full-time zoo work. These are not issues that are unique to our profession. It is only because the job of zoo veterinarian is perceived to be a “dream” job that choosing to leave for personal reasons may be seen to be very radical.
In summary, there is no easy answer to why someone chooses to leave work in a zoo and where they can go after “escaping” from the zoo. Some exchange the role of clinical zoo veterinarian for a position higher up the hierarchy within a zoo. Others move outside the walls of the zoo and go on to careers in related fields such as pathology, academia, research, lab animal medicine, or work for government agencies or for NGOs. Some leave zoological medicine for the more financially lucrative world of private practice. A few leave to pursue other interests, but still make occasional forays back into zoos doing relief work or working on fixed term contracts. In the final analysis, it can be said that the choice to leave clinical zoo medicine is taken, based on decisions about quality of life. It is never an easy decision to leave the security of a job, let alone a “dream” job. But in the end, people make that choice for a variety of personal and professional reasons. The job of zoo veterinarian is interesting and challenging but has both good and bad points. In the final analysis, it’s just a job.