Vet Student Shadows at Johannesburg Zoo

Jul 14, 2016 / Student Blogs


The Right Way to Plan

Lynsee Melchi in Johannesburg

Dr. Kresen Pillay, me, Melanie Reddy (vet nurse), and Dr. Johan Naude.

Years of traveling have taught me one important thing about traveling—you can plot, plan, and meticulously arrange, but the best things happen by chance. And sometimes holding together that carefully organized plan is more trouble than it’s worth. I’m sure this is a lesson of South African origin because although South Africa is a much less hectic African country than some of its brothers and sisters, time here moves way differently than at home. Impatience in South Africa will only give you high blood pressure while you wait for things to happen “juuuuust now.” “Just now” is a famous South African phrase indicating that something will happen anywhere from five minutes to five hours from now. I am in no way exaggerating about the upper limit of that timeframe. Trust me.

My most basic plan for going somewhere is:

  1. Get a plane ticket.
  2. Make sure passport is in order.
  3. Have a confirmed place to stay for at least the first night.
  4. Learn how to say “hello, thank you, sorry” in the lingua franca.

Everything else is just details….

When I planned my current trip to South Africa, I confirmed my two-week time slots with the friends I would be working with, asked if I could stay with them while I shadowed, and made sure I had the correct vet clothes/gear sorted out for each place. Just about everything else was up in the air, which is not how I operate these days. Vet school has been an exercise in squeezing tightly to my schedule because it feels like any minute can be a wasted moment. Our time is just so precious. It’s actually kind of maddening. I really don’t like living this way because I’m much more of a “let it flow” kind of person. But, you know, one day I will get to be a human I like again. I tried to make lists of things I wanted to do and people I needed to see, but eventually I stopped. My tourist list is pathetically awesome (which=attainable!) and consists of two things: visit Venda, ride Gautrain. I’m 50% done with my list, in case you were wondering. I know my current mode of death-grip planning would not work in South Africa. I just had to let it be. The people I wanted to see would slowly appear when I was in the same time zone and I was sure veterinary (and other) adventures would abound.

Well…I was right. My time at the Johannesburg Zoo is the perfect embodiment of this concept. My bird vet friend arranged for me to go to the zoo for a few days to shadow. What an excellent surprise! The zoo has on-site accommodation for visiting students and collaborators, so I lived in the Zoo House for a few days. How cool! See…the best things happen by chance!


Life at the Zoo (Birds, Part 2)

red panda

My quiet red panda neighbor chowing down. Not pictured: My loud lemur neighbor.

The zoo was pretty slow while I was there. Their hospital is under construction, so they are working in a temporary space. I arrived on a day when auditors were there, so there was a lot of paperwork to catch up on for the vets. We would do a procedure or two a day, and most of the rest of the time I spent chatting with a fellow South African clinical year veterinary student or playing with a young caracal, serval, and striped hyena. My time was still very informative. I am not interested in zoo medicine or wildlife as a future career path, but there are few people who could not be excited by the prospect of getting some wild animal adventures worked into their day. Plus, anything that is not my area is always a chance for me to learn something new. Honestly the concepts are the same with those animals I have never heard of. The vet there told me that really you just have to know what is toxic to a particular animal and use your other basic knowledge for the rest.

Overall it seems like zoo work is a lot of knowing bird stuff. The bird species definitely outnumber the mammals, so I again got to see more bird work in action. We anesthetized and did radiographs on an endangered wattle crane and re-bandaged a grass owl’s wing. There were also a ton of birds roaming freely around the grounds. It definitely made my epidemiologist “Spidey sense” tingle. Birds are notorious for spreading disease and with the world on high alert for avian influenza I thought the free-roaming bird thing was strange. I talked to the vet about it and it sounds like it’s something that is being talked about. The new director of the zoo is a veterinarian well versed in epidemiology and public health, so I’m guessing he would champion such efforts. The birds were quite pleasant to experience on my early morning zoo walks, but sometimes disease control is more important than pleasantries. At least if you are a vet.

The craziest thing I did was to help give a venomous snake some oral drugs. I put a tube into its mouth while it was being held and then delivered some anti-parasitic drugs with a syringe. Yeah, I stuck my hand in front of a poisonous snake’s mouth. It was freaky, but I’m glad I did it. Again, it’s good to do things that make you nervous.


Takeaways from the Zoo

Kelsey and Lynsee

Vet students united! Kelsey and me.

One thing that really struck me about the role of the veterinarian at the zoo was how much that person has to interact with all parties on the grounds. The vet is a true ambassador who must work with the keepers and handlers, the general workers, the administration, and basically anyone who is involved with an animal there. It’s actually pretty unique as most people seemed to just work in their area. There were private farmers who transported animals on/off the property and to/from game farms. The vet must work with these folks as well. The people skills involved in orchestrating the medical care of these animals are off the charts. It really takes a special person to be able to make all that run smoothly. Props to the vets there!

Since I lived at the zoo I got to be on the grounds outside of the public hours. I went on a few walks before and after the zoo was open. I really wanted to walk around in the dark, but it’s still South Africa and it really was not safe to do alone. There is security that roams the grounds, but the zoo is right in the middle of Johannesburg, so…nope. Not the best idea. Another South African lesson I know well: You can’t always get what you want especially when it comes to the degrees of freedom I enjoy as a single woman in the USA.

The Johannesburg Zoo is pretty old, but they really have some nice features. There is also a national zoo in Pretoria, which is about an hour away. It seemed like the National Zoo was kind of like the big sister, but I see a lot of potential at the Joburg Zoo. They have a lot going for them and a new director is a veterinarian. The staff veterinarians are also fairly new, both in their careers and in their time employed at the zoo. That almost always translates into vibrancy and they were excited about making the Joburg Zoo into a conservation powerhouse. I see big things in the future of that zoo.

Besides having a red panda and a lemur as neighbors, one of my favorite things about being at the zoo was my time spent chatting with the other veterinary student shadowing there. We are both clinical year students, although she is a little farther along in her year than my class is, and had some other common ground in that I also studied at the school she is currently attending. I’m “happy” to report that we have both been going through similar experiences in our final year, albeit a continent apart. They have roughly the same amount of clinical time that we do in terms of number of weeks and they cover roughly the same subjects for roughly the same number of weeks. She dislikes being told “you’re the doctor now” (when you patently are not) just as much as I do and has faced a number of the other challenges that are really too long to list here. I guess basically it’s good to know others are facing the same things. Always makes me feel a little bit less crazy.

Lynsee Melchi

Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared in Lynsee’s personal blog, “The (mis)Adventures of Miss Lynsee Melchi.”