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Interview with Richard Saunders - Zoo Vet

For my second ‘meet the specialist’ interview I was lucky enough to visit Bristol Zoo to meet Richard Saunders one of the vets there. On a beautifully sunny March day I went on Richard’s rounds with him and got a glimpse into the fascinating world of the zoo vet.Richard qualified from Liverpool University in 1994 and since then has studied zoo medicine. He is one of only a few vets to hold a diploma in zoo medicine. As well the zoo Richard works at a referrals veterinary hospital where he sees exotic pets brought to him from all over the country for specialist treatment.

The ‘Specialist’ Interview for Lily’s Kitchen 

27/3/2012

Richard Saunders BSc (Hons) BVSc MSB CBiol DZooMed MRCVS

For my second ‘meet the specialist’ interview I was lucky enough to visit Bristol Zoo to meet Richard Saunders one of the vets there. On a beautifully sunny March day I went on Richard’s rounds with him and got a glimpse into the fascinating world of the zoo vet.

Richard qualified from Liverpool University in 1994 and since then has studied zoo medicine. He is one of only a few vets to hold a diploma in zoo medicine. As well the zoo Richard works at a referrals veterinary hospital where he sees exotic pets brought to him from all over the country for specialist treatment. 

HM: What’s it like having to treat such a range of different species? (On his rounds this morning Richard had to check over and treat insects, fish and mammals!) 

RS: It is exciting, for example to be the first person to diagnose a certain disease in an animal. But it can also be frustrating because sometimes there are so little details known about the types of animals that we are treating. My job also involves a fair bit of paperwork – import and export certificates for instance. 

HM: How did you first become interested in exotic animals? 

RS: I grew up with rabbits and guinea pigs as pets and had chinchillas when I was at college. After graduating from university, (where I did an intercalated degree in zoology), I worked in general practice for a few years and then took an internship at an RSPCA wildlife hospital in Norfolk. It was here that my interest in the more ‘exotic’ species really took off. But it’s funny – in veterinary terms even a rabbit is termed an exotic animal! 

HM: What advice would you give to would-be exotic animal owners? 

RS: It can be very easy to just go out and buy an exotic pet such as a parrot, without really knowing much about how your are going to feed or look after it. For example, just feeding it birdseed when an African Grey needs a varied diet that consists of fruit and vegetables as well as grains, can cause a lot of problems. Poor husbandry is at the root cause of most health issues affecting the animals that I see in practice. It’s important to remember that unlike with cats and dogs, with most exotic animals the owner is 100% responsible for their environment at all times. This means that they need to know all about how to keep their exotic pet and what to feed them. Even getting one small part of their care just slightly wrong can cause serious health issues in these animals. This is why it’s a very good idea to have a discussion with your vet before going out to buy a more exotic pet. They should be able to help you decide on which one will be best for you, as well as offer advice on husbandry and feeding. 

HM: Seeing animals at the zoo can be a formative experience for many children. What kind of educational facilities do you offer for young people at Bristol zoo? 

RS: There are various ways that young people can get hands-on and learn a lot at the zoo. We have an educational department that organizes a variety of daily talks and guided tours for visitors and school groups. We also have schemes such as being a junior zoo keeper for the day! (HM: I think that sounds like the best birthday present for the under 12’s ever!) 

HM: It must be difficult to handle some of the zoo animals when they need veterinary treatment. How do you manage? 

RS: This can be difficult and we always try and keep treatment time, when an animal is away from their group, to a minimum. To help make routine health checks easier we have taught some of the animals to perform certain tasks on demand. For example the Sea lions have been trained, using a food and attention based reward system, to open their mouths on a certain signal. This then allows us to check their teeth or give them medication, more easily. Similarly the have trained the Western Lowland Gorilla’s to put their ears close to the bars so that we can place a thermometer to check their temperature. 


HM: When we went into the aquarium this morning we saw some fish that had been donated by members of the public. What’s the story there? 

RS: Very sadly many tropical and exotic fish all over the world are still caught from the wild for sale into the pet trade. This is still legal (unless the fish are on the CITES list of course), so wild caught fish may well be for sale in your local pet shop. We are soon to be launching a new campaign to raise awareness about this awful trade in wild-caught tropical fish that will hopefully help to put a stop to it. 

HM info alert: Keep an eye out on the zoo’s website for news on this campaign & how you can help. 

HM: I saw the lions being fed this morning. What is their typical diet and how would that compare to that of our domestic cats? 

RS: The lions that we have here are Asiatic lions.

HM info alert: There are less than 350 of these lions left in the wild. They are native to Northern India and usually live in small prides consisting of two females and one male only. 

RS: They are of course obligate carnivores and are fed a diet that comprises mainly of meat (ox and horse), bones and some offal. They are all given a vitamin and mineral supplement that contain taurine amongst other essentials, to ensure that their diet is complete and balanced. All the lions have one fast day per week. 

Domestic cats need a very similar diet, and what we feed the lions closely mimics the bones and raw food (BARF) diet that is popular with many cat and dog owners.

HM: I noticed that there was Catnip in the lion enclosure. Do you use many other herbs? 

RS: We do have catnip growing in the lion’s enclosure because scent is an important part of environmental enrichment for all the animals that we keep here at the zoo. The big cats, just like the domestic ones, seem to enjoy the smell of catnip. We also have a whole array of botanical plants that we grow here at Bristol Zoo Gardens – many of which either help to form part of the animals diet or are there for them to enjoy the scent of in their enclosures. 

HM: What is your favourite part of your job at the zoo? 

RS: Births are always nice. And hand rearing, where you have a lot of input, is another favourite. We had to hand rear a baby Sloth called Sid last year when her mother couldn’t feed her; the keepers took shifts taking him home. It was a very good feeling when she was recently re-introduced back into her family group. 

For more information about Bristol Zoo including the campaigns and conservation work visit their website at www.bristolzoo.org.uk

Lily