Veterinary medicine is an exciting career with opportunities in many interesting specialty areas. Those of us interested in primate medicine must be creative, flexible, and persistent because job opportunities in primate medicine are not numerous and can be competitive. Positions available in primate medicine include zoological gardens and laboratory animal medicine facilities including primate centers and public and private research facilities. Rare opportunities are sometimes available doing field work with free ranging primates and in private practices that offer service for sanctuaries or pet primates.
What do primate veterinarians do? Just like your pet's veterinarian or your own doctor, we work toward a preventative medicine program that strives to keep the monkeys in our charge healthy through routine vaccines and physical examinations, and we try to diagnose medical problems and treat them early in the disease. Those of us who care for captive primates are also involved in animal care decisions, behavioral enrichment programs, reviewing research protocols to make sure animals will be well cared for during experiments, investigating disease outbreaks or new treatment options for the animals, breeding programs and public education, just to name a few. Those who work with free living primates have similar concerns but must take a different approach, and are involved in disease monitoring, decisions about when to intervene, public policy regarding the reserves and public education.
What should you do if you are interested in pursuing a career as a primate veterinarian? Work hard! During undergraduate studies, while doing the prerequisites for veterinary school, students should try to get as much experience with primates as possible. You may take ethology, primatology or physical anthropology courses, volunteer at a zoo or primate facility, or try to get experience with free ranging primates. If you've made it to this page you may have noticed that there are job listings. This is a good place to begin looking for volunteer or paid opportunities. Once accepted to the 4-year veterinary program, it is very important to get good broad general veterinary training in medicine and surgery. Some veterinary schools offer courses or clinics in exotic animal medicine, but few offer training in primate medicine. This experience must be obtained by doing extra projects and/or summer jobs with a primate center or zoo, attending conferences, and through externships at primate facilities.
After veterinary school there are several options for additional training. Internships in medicine and surgery or zoo animal medicine are available and very useful. Internships are generally required for the next phase of veterinary training, which is a residency program in zoo animal medicine or laboratory animal medicine. The University of California - Davis Primate Center offers a residency in primate medicine. Veterinarians may become board certified in laboratory animal medicine or zoo animal medicine, much like medical doctors do in their specialty fields, by meeting specific training and publishing requirements and passing a rigorous test. There are several organizations that have annual conferences and/or home pages that are useful to the aspiring primate veterinarian including the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) (http://www.aazv.org/), the Association for Primate Veterinarians (APV), and the American Association of Laboratory Animal Scientists (AALAS) (http://www.aalas.org).
I was a clinical veterinarian at the Wisconsin Primate Research Center and a clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School, Special Species Service. I found my way to this position by a somewhat circuitous route. After getting my undergraduate degree in biology, I was an animal keeper in the Primate Department of the Brookfield Zoo for many years. I love working with primates and had the good fortune to work with many wonderful species in both captive and free-ranging conditions. I've always had an interest in medicine and had reached a point in my career as a keeper where I was doing more administrative work than work with the monkeys. I decided it was time for a change. I knew I would miss my work at the zoo, but was excited about pursuing my other dream of becoming a veterinarian. When I decided to go to veterinary school my goal was to return to work with primates and other exotic animals as a veterinarian. After graduation I worked for one year in a small animal private practice, developing my medical and surgical skills, but continued to take every opportunity to volunteer with exotic animal veterinarians in the area. This persistence and my years as a primate keeper helped my obtain my position at the primate center and the veterinary school.
As a veterinarian at the primate center, I am responsible for the medical care of the monkeys but I am still involved in animal care, and can help make the primates' lives more comfortable and stimulating. I work with my colleagues to investigate diseases that occur naturally in our monkeys so that we will know better how to treat them in the future, and I help facilitate our environmental enrichment committee. Another important aspect of my job is teaching, and I enjoy teaching veterinary students about exotic animals including primates.
The bottom line is that becoming a primate veterinarian is hard work and the jobs are difficult to get and demanding - but very fulfilling and worth the effort. You may not get your dream job immediately, but if you are tenacious and work hard you can get there. Good luck, and go for it!
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