Funding for veterinary research in zoos is vital if rare and extinct species are to be propagated for release into the wild "Now then, vitnery, shall I get thee a bucket of 'ot watter and some towels?"
The days when veterinary medicine centred on the freezing farm shed are fading fast. Modern-day practice involves high-quality medicine and surgery that rivals the standards of "human" hospitals.
It may surprise the public that many common animals, including the rabbit, are classed as "exotic pets" because of their absence from the curriculum at vet schools. I was part of the team at Edinburgh University vet school that started the first "exotic animal" core curriculum course in the United Kingdom five years ago.
Yet what about the zoo animals? We still need zoos and hence excellence in zoo veterinary medicine. In a world where another species becomes extinct each week, zoos have a vital role as an ark for the propagation of endangered species with the eventual aim of reintroduction to the wild.
These hopes are not pipe dreams. I have just returned from Egypt where the tortoise Testudo kleimanni, which has been extinct in the wild for 15 years, is to be reintroduced using animals bred at Bristol Zoo Gardens and other zoos around the world.
It is necessary to assess whether the animals are fit, healthy and genetically sound enough for release and to be able to monitor how well they adapt to their new environment. At present, most such projects are managed by committed biologists with little input from veterinary medicine, due to the dearth of vets equipped with the specialist knowledge.
Vets are intelligent people and able to extrapolate data from, for example, the cow, as a large ruminant, to use on the elephant, another large ruminant. However, an elephant is not a cow, and there are important anatomical and physiological differences that can have profound effects on how medicines will work.
The same is true for many other species. Zoo veterinary medicine is the newest field of veterinary medicine and deals exclusively with exotic and zoo animals.
Zoological medicine was first recognised by the American Veterinary Medicine Association as a true speciality of veterinary medicine in 1982. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in the UK first recognised the discipline as worthy of postgraduate certification in 1996. We need to encourage the further development of zoo veterinary medicine in the UK by the adequate funding of positions to encourage clinical advances, relevant research and in the education of the vets of the future.
Bristol Zoo Gardens has taken the important step of investing in the future of zoo veterinary medicine by appointing a full-time veterinary officer. I took up this position in late 1999. This is the first such appointment in a UK zoo for many years, as most still rely upon visits by external local vets with an interest in zoo medicine.
Most of the larger American zoos have not one but a whole team of full-time vets working to maintain the health of the collection and to develop and report new diagnostic and treatment methods. Unfortunately, in the UK, many cannot afford this option, in part due to the lower incidence of big business sponsorship and research funding. However, Bristol Zoo Gardens has given priority to the development of such a service. We now look to the future for the integration of vets, conservationists and biologists in the development of strategies to conserve and maintain the diversity of animals on the planet.
Sharon Redrobe is zoo veterinary officer, Bristol Zoo Gardens.