Dr. William Rives, head veterinarian and director of Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari, loves his job. He knows all of the employees at the wildlife park — even the part-time seasonal workers — and he can rattle off facts about every animal in the park. That's impressive considering there are 1,200 animals, representing 57 species from every continent except Antarctica.
If anyone on staff is having a bad day, Dr. Rives tells them to take a drive through the park. “It cheers everyone up almost immediately,” he says. “Just being around the animals and observing them is a thrill.”
Dr. Rives got hooked on animal science in high school. His biology teacher suggested he go to school to become a veterinarian. He always had an interest in animals. “I used to watch Mutual of Omaha's
While in school, he worked part-time as a gate guard at Six Flags Wild Safari. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania to study veterinary medicine. In 1993, he returned to the Wildlife Safari park as the head veterinarian. A few years later, he was promoted director of Wild Safari.
Without zoos, most people would never see a wild animal up close. The role of today's zoos is to educate the public about animals. The role of zoo veterinarians, vet techs, and zoo directors is to preserve the animal population — especially endangered animals. Many zoos and wildlife centers are working to reintroduce endangered species back into their natural habitats.
As head veterinarian, Dr. Rives oversees the care of all of the animals at Wild Safari. He is happy that he can rely on his staff. “When an animal is sick or injured, we all have to pitch in,” he explains.
The natural response of veterinarians, vet technicians, and others who work with wild animals is the desire to care for and have a personal bond with the animals. With these wild animals, it is essential to keep a safe distance, and try not to domesticate them. It's in the best interest of the animal care professional to be as caring as possible without getting too attached. The animal care worker knows that these are wild animals and should not be treated as pets.
Animals in the wild — mostly pack animals — try their best to hide injuries and illness. If a prey animal is sick, the pack usually doesn't want it around because it calls attention to the herd. Predators usually go after the weak link, and that is often an injured or sick animal. So, Dr. Rives and his staff keep a constant eye on every animal in the safari park.
Fortunately, Dr. Rives has a support system. “When you go to veterinary school, it would be impossible to learn about every single animal,” he says. “You are constantly reading everything you can get your hands on, and you talk to your staff and colleagues at other wildlife centers.”
Zoo veterinarians practice all facets of veterinary medicine including surgery, internal medicine, anesthesia, pathology, preventive medicine, and radiology. While each zoo has a different collection of animals, most veterinarians who work in zoos and wildlife centers care for a broad range of exotic animals.
When he began on the job as head veterinarian, Dr. Rives felt pangs of nervousness. “It is okay to be a bit terrified when you are treating your first animal,” he says. “It gets easier each time. In vet school, they train you to be on your own — even though there is always a support system around. I can always call or e-mail other vets and former professors to discuss how best to treat an animal.”
It seems that the working relationship among veterinarians and people who work with animals is one of cooperation. People in this field share a few common goals. First, they want to improve the welfare of all animals. They also enjoy learning from the animals they work with, and they want to pass on their knowledge about the animals to the public — for the public's edification as well as enjoyment.
Being a veterinarian at a zoo or wildlife center is a major responsibility. Zoo veterinarians take care of a wide range of animals. To become a zoo veterinarian or vet at a wildlife center, one must complete veterinary medical school. Majoring in zoology is also recommended.
Dr. Rives and his colleagues suggest volunteering while in school. “Get as much on-the-job experience as possible,” he says. “Even an internship or part-time volunteer position at a wildlife center will give you an idea if this is the job for you. Plus, we look for people who have worked as volunteers at zoos and other wildlife centers.”
There is no such thing as a typical workday for zoo or wildlife center veterinarians. Each day is different because of the wide variety of animal species. Veterinarians who work with exotic animals need to be especially creative and must be able to think quickly on their feet in order to solve a broad range of health problems.
With more than 200 accredited zoos, wildlife centers, and aquariums in the United States, opportunities are available for veterinarians from time to time. People who are employed at these institutions usually don't leave. They enjoy their jobs so much that they leave only when they retire. That's not to say there aren't opportunities. Jobs do open up.
It helps to be a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. These nonprofit member organizations post jobs on their websites. Networking and the willingness to relocate for a job helps.
Zoo veterinarians also must be open to doing grunt work. It doesn't matter if you are the head vet or an intern; at a place like Wild Safari everyone pitches in. Hours can get crazy once in a while. If a birth is expected, the staff is on call. The folks at Wild Safari do get to spend time with their family. This isn't an around-the-clock job, but hours can be long if an animal is injured, sick, or giving birth.
Incomes are good, mostly falling in the mid-range. Dr. Rives gets a few calls each month from students asking about career opportunities. “If the first thing they ask is about the money, I tell them to look for another career,” he says. “We don't do this for the money. We do this because we are passionate about animals.”
Salaries range from $25,000 to $60,000 for veterinarians first starting out, depending on geographic location. Most wildlife parks and zoological centers have great benefit packages for their employees.