It Takes a Zoo to Run a Zoo: Vet Techs



National Vet Tech Week was the week of October 11-17, 2020, but they certainly deserve more than a week of celebration. From drawing blood to collecting stool samples to providing neonatal care to everything in-between, vet techs work hard every day to make sure the animals in our care are staying healthy and well. It’s not just our house pets that need veterinary care either. Vet techs are an integral part of zoo teams everywhere, helping those animals stay happy and healthy. I had the chance to chat with Mark Romanoski from Henry Vilas Zoo about his experiences as a zoo vet tech.


Getting Started


Mark got his start as a vet tech working in general practice, primarily working with cats and dogs. From there, he transitioned into working with specialty surgery and anesthesia, assisting surgeons with complicated procedures such as heart procedures and intestinal redirections. His first foray into the zoo world was as a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo, which he did for about two and a half years until he was hired as a full-time vet tech. After about six months of working at the Phoenix Zoo, Mark moved to Oklahoma to work as a vet tech at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In June of 2020, Mark moved again, this time to join the team at Henry Vilas Zoo.


Training and Schooling


Most veterinary technician programs accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) are two-year associate degree programs. Some institutions offer four-year bachelor’s degree programs as well. Along with learning principles of animal biology, vet tech programs teach necessary skills to be successful on the job such as restraining animals for procedures, preparing and giving medications, conducting lab tests, assisting in dental procedures, and so much more. After graduation, to become a certified vet tech, the Veterinary Technician National Exam must be passed.


When he transitioned into the zoo world, Mark said he was very green, as are most new zoo vet techs. While there is a learning curve to working with a wide variety of species, having the core vet tech skills translates well into other animals. Drawing blood on a dog compared to a snake is more a matter of knowing where the vein is in that animal, rather than knowing how to draw the blood. Most people who graduate and become vet techs go on to work with cats and dogs, so it’s necessary to learn “zoo skills” from board-certified zoo veterinarians and other zoo vet techs while on the job.


Mark says learning is an ongoing process as a zoo vet tech. If there is a procedure scheduled for an animal Mark has not worked with before, it’s time to hit the books and learn what he can to be well-prepared for the procedure. But, really, when working with a wide variety of animals, it’s really a matter of taking the general knowledge and breaking it down to individual animals. Everything breathes in some manner, every animal needs air, and understand the basic principles of how breathing works across species can then be broken down and applied to specific species.


Veterinarian versus Veterinary Technician


It is often assumed that working as a veterinary technician is merely a stepping-stone to becoming a veterinarian. Mark says absolutely not! Being a vet tech is a career in and of itself, just like being a nurse for humans is its own career. So what exactly is the difference between a vet tech and a veterinarian? Mark says there are four primary things a veterinarian can do that, legally, a vet tech cannot:


  1. Veterinarians can do surgery. Legally a vet tech cannot alter an animal’s body in any way.

  2. Veterinarians can prescribe medication. While vet techs may assist in administering medication or talk about medications, they cannot put an animal on any medication.

  3. Veterinarians can make an official diagnosis. Through their exams, veterinarians determine what may be wrong with an animal. While vet techs may suggest a diagnosis when consulting with a vet, the official diagnosis has to come from the veterinarian.

  4. Veterinarians can give a prognosis; they can give an idea of the likely outcome of a procedure or diagnosis.


Other than those four large differences, vet techs can do everything else. They draw blood, set catheters, monitor anesthesia, etc. This allows the vet to focus on examining the animal and carrying out the necessary steps to give a diagnosis.


Gorilla surgery assistant


While working at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Mark assisted with a procedure to repair a hernia in one of their Western lowland gorillas. Hernias occur when an organ or some fatty tissue squeezes through a weak spot in the surrounding muscle or connective tissue. In the case of the gorilla, a hole had opened up in her abdominal wall and some of her intestine had leaked through the hole, causing a small bubble to appear on her belly. Surgery was deemed to be the best solution and through collaboration with a local human medicine team, the first robotic surgery was performed on a gorilla under human care.

The robot used was a da Vinci Surgical System and is the most minimally invasive procedure to repair a hernia. A typical hernia surgery results in a large abdominal incision, but with the robot’s assistance, the surgical team only needed to open a few small ports in the abdomen to slide the tools into to be able to inflate the stomach and close up the hernia. This allowed for a quick and easy recovery from the surgery and allowed the gorilla to go back to being her naturally inquisitive self.


Favorite thing about being a vet tech?


Well, that question is a bit hard to answer. New and interesting experiences are always right around the corner-there’s no such thing as a typical day. In terms of working with zoo animals, Mark said, “You have these animals you don’t ever touch right in front of you. It’s kind of hard-you have to trick yourself out of the stand there with your jaw on the floor moments and be like, ‘Okay, I have a job to do.’”

Aside from working with the animals, Mark also really enjoys talking to guests about zoo medicine and the excellent work being done. Just like a person going to the doctor can be stressful, visits from the vet can be stressful for animals. Behind-the-scenes though, keepers and vet techs are always working on voluntary behaviors for the animals to participate willingly in their vet visits. When an animal is willing and able to participate in their own wellness checks, it is much less stressful for everyone is involved. On many days, the job may be dirty or gross, but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding to know that they’re doing good medicine.


Resources


Interested in learning more about becoming a veterinary technician? The AVMA has a list of programs accredited by AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA), found here. For other professional organizations and resources, check out the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) and the Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT).


All zoos mentioned in this article are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA is a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.


Be sure to follow Mark on Instagram (@ZooMedRVT) for a window into the life of a zoo vet tech!


You can follow Henry Vilas Zoo on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter


Thanks for reading! Have a question about zoos, conservation, research, or animals? Let me know by filling out the form below and we'll learn together! You can also follow me on Twitter (@samantha_vold).