While studying to become a veterinary technician, Kyle Covill, veterinary technical supervisor at Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari, would volunteer to work with rabbits, rats, mice, snakes, an impala, kangaroo, and lion. “Ninety-nine percent of what we learned at school is centered on dogs and cats,” he says. “Whenever I had the chance to work on an animal other than a dog or cat, I jumped at the opportunity.”
He actually first started showing dogs when he was nine years old. “I did that until I turned 21,” he says. “I would show dogs for professional handlers.”
When he turned 21 he enlisted in the Marine Corps. After spending four years with the Marines, he went back to school to work with animals. While he was at school, Covill spent a lot of time volunteering at veterinary hospitals.
“Several years ago the job of veterinary technician wasn't well known,” he says. “We are animal nurses, and we do everything a nurse does. I'm a certified veterinary technician [CVT].”
Covill got his CVT from the Northern New Jersey Consortium for Veterinary Technology. He says that when it comes to working with exotic animals, most of the education you will get is from on-the-job training. “Over time you will learn that a tiger is a tad bit different from a lion in the way he behaves. Each animal is different. Sometimes you can apply what works for one animal to another. Other times, you must be very creative.”
The veterinary technical field is attracting more and more women. About 80 percent of veterinary technicians are women. Women, as well as men, are drawn to this semi-new field because they want to help animals. Veterinary technical school varies between a two-year and four-year degree program. Some vet techs don't have degrees — just on-the-job experience. Having a certified veterinary technician degree makes getting a job easier.
Many states require two- and four-year vet tech graduates to take a licensing exam. According to Covill, the test is pretty broad, with 200 questions covering everything from domestic animal care to facts about pet food and medications. The National Veterinary Technician exam is offered in most states, and the license is transferable from state to state. For more information about this exam, contact the Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians.
For Covill, working at Wild Safari is an adventure. “We can have a few hair-raising moments,” he says. “Safety is paramount. When you are working with a lion that may be ill, you have to anesthetize him, and make sure that he is not moving. Before we open the pen, we tap on it to make sure he isn't moving. Before we do anything on the animal, we apply bite locks, so if they do bite down, we won't get bit.”
Most of the time, Covill spends his day making rounds, driving through the safari park observing different behaviors. “Often, we let nature takes its course,” he says. “Sometimes it is best for the animal to leave it alone, or let the mom take care of it. We step in when we need to — to do what's best for the animals.”
When Covill comes across an animal that needs care that he is not familiar with, he consults with Dr. Rives and his staff. “If we are stumped, I can go online to my member organization and ask a question.”
Covill belongs to the Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians (AZVT), a nonprofit organization with more than 300 members. AZVT offers an annual conference to its members, has a job board, and lets members know about workshops to enhance their knowledge. “Once you become a vet tech, it's a good idea to be part of a national organization,” says Covill. “It's a good place to learn more about the field.”
Veterinary technicians at zoos and wildlife centers often earn an hourly wage of $8 to $20, depending on geographical location and institution. Some start out with annual salaries of $25,000. After several years of on-the-job experience, vet techs can earn between $45,000 and $60,000. Most who get salaried positions receive a full benefits package.
Even with a good support system in place, vet techs can be on their own — especially when working with exotic animals. “Sometimes we come across a situation where there is nothing written,” says Covill. “We can stump our colleagues with questions. That's when we have to try different methods to see what works and what doesn't work. There is a lot of creativity that goes into this job.”
Even when he is stumped, he enjoys the challenge of treating a wide assortment of exotic animals — especially the hoofed stock. “I like working with the antelope species,” he says. “We have several endangered ones here. The trick for me is not to get too attached.”