To touch a tiger

| September 17, 2010

Vanessa Anderson is passionate about raising awareness in young people – both about her job and her rather exotic patients.


“July 2010 was designated Veterinary Nurses’ Month by the Veterinary Nurses Association of South Africa – a perfect opportunity for me to tell the media and schoolchildren about this exciting career that’s also listed as a scarce skill.” Anderson – she’s worked at the Johannesburg Zoo for three-and-a-half years, and wouldn’t trade her job for anything – is giving us a private tour of the hospital facility that cares for over 2 000 animals. “During this special month, I give daily tours of the hospital to groups of schoolkids and their teachers,” she explains, laughing at our skittishness around a rather slithery patient-in-recovery.

A career change – 20 years after leaving school

Quite obviously, a veterinary nurse – “many people don’t know that such a job option even exists,” marvels Anderson – has to love beasts and birds. “I’m no different,” says this calm animal expert. “Nusing was always at the back of my mind, and eventually, I just decided to go for it. I hadn’t done Maths at school so, 20 years after matriculating, I bit the bullet, and passed with a lot of help!” The only place to study veterinary nursing in South Africa currently is Ondersterpoort, attached to the
University of Pretoria, and Anderson was lucky enough to be one of 45 successful applicants in 2005.

“I was one of the oldest students in the class!” she grins. Her determination helped her through the tough bits, like only seeing her husband at weekends, and giving up
a salary. A week-long stint in second year at Joburg Zoo hospital confirmed that this is where she wanted to be after graduation. The fates granted her wish.

“Young people considering this career should know it’s not an easy interview,” she cautions. “I was asked questions like: ‘If you’re dealing with a baboon which weighs X amount, and needs such-and-such a drug, so how would you calculate the dose?”

School leavers considering veterinary nursing should also not entertain romantic dreams like diving with dolphins, says Anderson. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous work, and Mathematics, coupled with either Science or Biology, is a non-negotiable requirement. The course itself could also present some with a financial challenge.

A wonderful wildlife team

The daily joy Anderson experiences on the job, however, far outweighs any challenge. “I work with two great vets, who have their qualifications in zoological medicine and wildlife. I learn new things every day.” Anderson is careful to talk to young people about the value of well-run zoos whenever she can. “When you work here, you quickly realise that a zoo’s main functions are research, education and conservation. Around the globe, there are species that would not exist if it wasn’t for zoos, like spectacled bears, of which we have a pair. We’re also very proud of our wattled crane recovery programme.”

Contrary to popular belief, zoos will never take an animal from the wild to live out its days in an enclosure. “A lot of our animals were born here. Our antelope, for example, breed the year round, which would not happen in the wild. Here they have a good supply of food and shelter from predators. We deworm them and vaccinate them, and
they usually all live to a ripe old age.” From an education point of view, there are thousands of children who visit the zoo every year. “We also run a programme called ‘Zoo to you’.

Animals go out to the schools with their keepers and education officers. Children can touch them, and learn about their role on the planet.”

No such thing as a normal day

Anderson laughs good-naturedly at the notion of a ‘normal’ day. “Let’s see. I start work at 7am, and first I check and treat my patients and update their charts and medication schedules. Then it’s time for rounds with the vet to discuss specific cases and plans for the day. “Our preventative medicine protocol is a crucial daily activity. I also order and control all the stock, and help maintain the capture equipment. The sterilisation and organisation of equipment for X-rays and surgery must be done properly. In the afternoons, there are treatments again, and the animals must be fed and watered, and receive the correct husbandry. At night everything must be off and closed, and in winter patients must be in out of the cold.”

Members of the public come to the hospital almost daily, says Anderson who, with the rest of the medical team, fields queries about injured birds and discovered snakes or
abandoned tortoises. Everyone’s also involved in the constant enrichment activities for the zoo’s resident animals.

Clearly, aspirant veterinary nurses – whose ranks include increasing numbers of young men – can’t really afford to be squeamish. “Nurses are not allowed to perform invasive surgery, but we sew up skin wounds, administer injections and enemas, pass stomach tubes and set up intravenous lines, change bandages and monitor anaesthetics and x-rays,” lists Anderson.

They also assist during surgical procedures, naturally. One of Anderson’s most treasured memories is giving mouth-to-nose treatment to a new-born Cameroon goat twin.
“We named him Breathless!” she laughs. “Every day is special in my line of work. To touch a tiger, for example, one of the most endangered animals on the planet, is a rare privilege.”

Contact Louise Matschke at the Johannesburg Zoo Education Office at Tel: +27 (11) 646 2000 ext 254. To make a donation to the Zoo hospital’s wish list, contact Sister Vanessa Anderson at Tel: +27 (11) 646 2000 ext 239.

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Category: Spring 2010 Edition

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