Efficient timeline for Zoo Medicine?

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Jul 12, 2016
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Hi, I'm new to the boards here and am an aspiring Zoo Veterinarian, basically I would love to work with exotic animals, preferably mammals and marsupials, in a Zoo setting or something like SeaWorld if I was to go into the marine mammals area. That's my primary goal - though I'm open to other avenues of Vet Med whether it'd be medicine in other types of animals or domestic cases. But for this thread's purposes, I would like to kind of have a brief overview of when I should be doing my volunteering/internships/externships and residencies so I can have an idea and map it all out. At the moment, I am attending my local community college for most likely 1 year to get the rest of my basic classes done to save money ( I have 6 AP credits already going into college so I'm somewhat ahead of the curb ).
Would it be ideal to start volunteering at a zoo now, and at what year of my undergrad or grad school should I start looking for internships at places to get some viable experience? I want to get as ahead as I can so I can be competitive with other applicants to residences and jobs out there in the field I desire - Zoo Medicine. Thanks!

High School info : 4.08 on a 5.0 Scale w/6 AP classs credits including Biology and Chem basics
Attending Community College for a year
Interest - Zoo medicine ~ Mammals & Marsupials (Favorite Animals - Sea Lions / Koala / Otters / Red Pandas)

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First, I would just like to say that your username is great and I approve 147%.

Now for a few thoughts that will hopefully help answer your question.

1). If you can start volunteering at a zoo now, it's a good idea to start doing so - it'll give you a bit of exposure as to what the zoo world is like, as well as allowing you to start meeting people/making connections. Take your responsibilities seriously and do them well, however humble they may seem to be - not only because it's good practice in general, but it will help you establish a reputation for being a good worker and responsible. The zoo world is very, very small.

2). Don't have tunnel vision on zoo med, especially since you haven't had any real experience in it yet and are just attracted to the idea at this point - do explore other areas of vet med and get experience in them. Yeah doing surgery on a tiger is pretty legit and flashy, but there are a lot of really fascinating things you can do in the world of vet med. Shadow and/or work in multiple types of clinics and areas of vet med.

3). The path for getting into zoo med right now, very broadly speaking, is vet school -> at least one 1 year rotating internship (possibly two) -> 3 year residency program -> hopefully, a job as an associate vet at a zoo or similar facility. Keep in mind that every single one of those steps is very competitive. Zoo med is one of the most competitive, and also lowest paid, specialties in vet med. Also keep in mind that while not every zoo vet is ACZM board certified, quite a few are, and that is a heck of a process in and of itself.

4). Re: internships - if you can swing it financially (keep in mind it is very, very hard to find paid zoo/wildlife-related internships), start doing internships as soon as you can. However, do not treat said internships as an item on your checklist to get you into vet school - that mentality is glaringly obvious to your supervisors/those around you. Approach any opportunity - be it an internship, volunteering, etc - with the mindset of trying to learn as much as you can about different facets of the zoo/wildlife field, grow in your understanding of it, and do the best job that you can at what you are assigned.

5). In order to get to zoo med, you have to get into vet school first - focus most of your energy on that right now. Nail your undergrad classes, get good veterinary and animal experiences, do well on the GRE, etc. Not trying to damper your enthusiasm here, heaven knows I was much like you, but first things first.
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It can't hurt to get zoo experience now (it may be hard to get fyi), but just know that it won't totally help you down the road with the exception that you may be getting to know the DVMs there/making connections. I'm not going to say that making friends with your local zoo vet will make it easy for you to get a residency, but it may get you letters of rec down the road! Don't stress too much if you're unable to get true veterinary experience at a zoo at this stage, though, as you're not alone in that. I know of zoo vets who didn't even consider zoo med until their fourth year on an exotics rotation. Plenty of vet students come in wanting to be a zoo vet without ever having been more than a guest at a zoo. The experience will definitely help you make sure it's what you want though (although what you want now most likely won't be the same in 4-6 years)...a lot of people don't realize how much desk work and writing (grants, research publications, record keeping) a zoo vet actually does. There's a lot of glamor that surrounds the job, but at the end of the day, you're a GP working with exotic species. And the pay sucks.

Also echoing the fact that zoo med is insanely competitive, and it seems that competition is increasing every year. The match rates are notoriously low (mostly because there really aren't that many residencies compared to other specialties). I was told that for every residency opening, there are 80-100 applications for it, and you can follow these stats every year. Those stats are pretty depressing. The best you can do is make connections, have good grades in vet school (It was suggested to me to stay above a 3.0 to make most academic cutoffs as well as have a high class rank), get some relevant research going and publish it, and don't forget to participate in extracurriculars/conservation efforts/workshop type things. Your CV really does need to be quite impressive.

Also, because relevant: I worked with a zoo resident who applied for her residency after several years in small animal. It may be harder to get back into the swing of things or stay relevant in the exotics world when you're only seeing cats/dogs, but it's possible. You don't have to charge through to a residency if it doesn't make sense for you. My current plan is to work (ideally somewhere with exotics) for 1-3 years before applying for a residency just to start paying off my loans. The debt load should not be forgotten here, as residents only make around $30-35k a year for zoo med that I've seen. It's wise to pay very close attention to what internships/residencies can do to increase your debt load.

If you decide a residency isn't for you, many smaller/non-AZA zoos do not have boarded vets. You still need relevant experience to be considered for those jobs, but there are options out there. Even if you are a resident, the ACZM boarding exam is probably tied with path as being the hardest exam to pass. I know vets who finished residencies, but didn't pass the boards. It is an extremely long and grueling road, and there is a real possibility that you will go through it and not end up boarded. Be sure to look at it with eyes wide open and a very realistic attitude. If you goals don't change, good luck! It's terrible difficult, but never impossible.