Get to Know the Jungle Doctor
Can you tell us about how you got started in your veterinary medicine journey? Did you always know you wanted to be a vet?
I am 28 now and I think that I must have known around 8 that I wanted to become a vet! Growing up as an only child, my best friend in the world was my Burmese cat, Pep, and I think he was a big part of reason behind my decision. Luckily Pep ended up living to 21 so it went full circle and I ended up becoming his vet!
Another contributing factor I think was when, at the age of 12, my mum and I moved to Australia’s beautiful Lord Howe Island. Looking back, it was there that I fell in love with the beauty of our natural environment and all of the creatures within it. From then on, I think I had decided that I wanted to pursue a career in wildlife conservation because I wanted to make a contribution – even if only a very small one!
Where did you attend undergraduate and veterinary school?
I did both my undergraduate degree and DVM at the University of Melbourne in Australia. I studied a Bachelor of Science and majored in animal health and disease as my undergraduate, and transferred across to the DVM after that. Although originally from Sydney, I chose Melbourne because I had some family members there, and at the time it was the only university in Australia to offer the DVM. I liked that the DVM is recognised in so many places over the world, and was attracted by the freedom it could offer post graduation.
How was your experience in veterinary school?
I loved vet school! It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but also one of the best. I made many of my closest friends there, and have an abundance of memories to look back on and laugh about. One time my friends have never let me live down was when a bird latched onto my finger during our first ever bird handling class and I screamed “make it stop!!” into the classroom at the top of my lungs. My experience of vet school was essentially having daily opportunities to make a fool of myself and I loved it. I think it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself on occasion and vet school certainly provides lots of those!
In all seriousness though, I think the veterinary profession is a very special one as it is so small, tight-knit, and supportive. What you get upon graduation is membership to a profession where people will be there for you and support you, regardless of what part of the world you decide to practice in. I consider myself very lucky to be a part of it!
Did you always know what you wanted to do in the veterinary field?
I think there is a lot of pressure placed upon students and young vets to know what they want to do immediately out of vet school. But, when considering a profession as diverse and exciting as ours, I think it's important to be able to take time for yourself and explore different avenues before deciding what’s right for you. I have always tried to keep an open mind, say “yes” to opportunities and see where the path takes me – which currently is in the United Kingdom, doing an online business course and planning my first student trip to Africa!
Was there a certain experience that lead you to becoming “the Jungle Doctor”?
I was in my third-year of vet school and was shocked when I realized how little was known about what it actually means to be a vet. Yes, there are veterinarians who work in private practice, and those who specialize or teach, or even work in a zoo, but there are also veterinary epidemiologists who work with organisations like the United Nations on large-scale disease eradication programs, veterinary pathologists working to develop new DNA technology to track a poached animal to its poacher, and clinical veterinarians who have moved to remote parts of the world to set up sanctuaries for rare and endangered species. It is such a diverse and amazing field, and I created the page with the goal of demystifying what it means to be a vet. To do this, I decided to document my journey through vet school (and what’s happened since), while also sharing other stories from other veterinarians or organisations in their daily work – especially those I have spent time with in the past. It has been so touching to see how many people around the world have an interest in what we do!
What has been your favorite experience as a veterinarian?
It is impossible to pick just one, as every day gives me a reason to love what I do. If I had to narrow it down though, I’d say some of my best experiences have come from my time in Africa. I am lucky to have lived with the Masai tribes in Tanzania while doing vaccination campaigns, spent time with the anti-poaching rangers in Kenya, volunteered at an amazing wildlife rehabilitation center in Malawi, learned to dart from a helicopter in Zimbabwe as part of a wildlife capture course, trans-located elephants and giraffe in South Africa, and learned about life in the deserts of Namibia. Another highlight, although not in a veterinary capacity, was my visit to Uganda and Rwanda to track the critically endangered mountain gorillas with some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated rangers I have ever met.
If I had to narrow it down even further, the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done as a vet has been to participate in wild giraffe captures. They are completely unbelievable!
What advice can you give to students interested in pursuing a path like yours?
To answer that question depends very much on what part of my path they are interested in pursuing. When it comes to wildlife, there are so many different ways to become involved and I am always more than happy to meet with students and discuss the options with them!
If you don't mind me asking, how do you manage this lifestyle financially?
There are no secrets that there are many more lucrative careers out there than veterinary medicine, but a real positive to this, in my opinion, is that you rarely find a vet that has pursued this career for anything other than a passion for it! With that being said, while it is true that we are one of the highest qualified yet lowest paid professions, there are ways to make money in
veterinary medicine, including the certain pathways of practice ownership, certain specializations (equine, internal medicine, surgery) and roles in government or industry.
As for my own experiences financially, since finishing my internship I have been dividing my time between locum work, getting married, and traveling to volunteer with different conservation organisations. I use money from paid employment to go towards the charities and organisations that I volunteer with and also try to raise some extra funds for them where possible. There is a lot of work that’s needed on a volunteer basis, and while it doesn’t cost anything to do this it also doesn’t earn anything so it’s important to find a sustainable balance!
(It might also be worth noting that I am in a bit of a different boat to the American students. While we also have student loans in Australia, they are not as excessive as in the USA and they do not have to be repaid until you earn over a certain amount per year. In America, loan repayments can be quite substantial and, unlike in Australia, they usually have to start being made within six months of graduation – regardless of salary.)
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
I don’t know where I see myself in five or ten years, and rather than that being scary, I find it exciting! I’m now 28, but in my early 20’s I tried to plan everything and I’ve since realized that life rarely goes to plan – but that’s the beauty of it. I certainly did not think I would end up married to a German vet student and be living overseas at the moment, but that’s just how things work out!
Once Jan is finished with his final exams here in Germany in March, we plan to spend the next year continuing to work and volunteer in different capacities with a range of conservation projects around the world. I will also be taking my first student trip to Tanzania which is really exciting as it is a project that is close to my heart!
As for five or ten years…We’ve got some ideas but as I said, I find plans tend to change with time anyway! I would hope that we are settled back home in Australia and playing some role in preventing further extinctions in a country that sadly has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the modern world. I also hope that I am still involved with many of these wonderful organisations that I have spent time with over the past few years!
What’s the most challenging aspect of practicing veterinary medicine around the world?
I guess I could break that down into a few categories…!
Licensing – depending on what work you are doing overseas (paid versus volunteering), you may need to get a license for the country. that you are practicing in. I have recently moved to Europe to work as a locum veterinarian for a few months, so became registered with the veterinary body in the United Kingdom.
Finances – a bit of an uninspiring thought I know, but unfortunately it is important! What salary you can expect is very much dependent on where you are practicing, and in what capacity. For an example, working as a locum vet typically pays better than a full time position.
Cultural differences – less important in the UK and USA, but are definitely worth keeping in mind, especially if working in places like Africa and Asia.
The medicine itself is going to be different – it’s always a challenge keeping on top of the different drug names used in different countries! It’s also worth remembering that diseases that are common at home may not be where you decide to work!
We saw that you just recently got married! Congrats! What advice can you give us about maintaining relationships while working and traveling?
Thank you! I’m not sure that I am the best person to ask about this as Jan and I met while at a conference in the USA, and since he is from Germany and I am Australian, we have always had an element of distance! It wasn’t a problem at all for us – we spent as much time together as we could and always made it a priority but we also understood when we needed to be apart due to work (or university in Jan’s case). In fact, during the first year of our relationship I was home in Australia completing a 12-month small animal rotating internship while Jan was in school back in Germany! I think it comes down to having a mutual respect for each other and knowing that it’s ok to be apart when you need to be.
What’s your favorite animal?
Because of Pep, I’d have to say cats! (No one ever guesses that.)
What do you do for fun?
Lots of things! I obviously like to travel, but I love being home just as much. Writing is my hobby but I also love to be outside – going on walks, swimming in the ocean or trying to surf (it’s ironic that I married a German but he can still surf better than me). We also recently tried our hand at making our own beer (tasted terrible), and of course work sometimes creeps into it because our most recent “hobby” was raising a baby kangaroo that had been orphaned. We called her Ruby and she was released back to the wild two months ago!
Lastly, what is 1 piece of advice you’d give to future veterinarians?
With respect to finding your way in the vet world, I would suggest always keeping an open mind about where you’d like to end
up and make sure to give everything a go – including things you wouldn’t expect to enjoy!
A veterinary degree is like a passport and the diversity of places it can take you always continues to surprise and amaze me. I was told to keep an open mind on my first day of vet school and while it certainly led me into a few terrible decisions (try two weeks work experience on a fish farm, moving 10,000 of them – by hand – from one tank to another), it has also taken me to some of the most unexpectedly wonderful places!
If I can give a second piece of advice, it would be to not feel pressured to know what you want to do right away – it is fine to take all the time you need and explore all the options you’ve got!
Kristi – thank you so much for inviting me to be interviewed, it is very kind of you!! I hope you and all the other vet students/aspiring vets/new vets know that I am always here and happy to help you navigate your way through it all (as much as I can)!
If you enjoyed learning about Chloe, the Jungle Doctor, make sure to keep up to date with her veterinary adventures on instagram at jungle_doctor
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