My dream job as a zoo vet by Totterdown's Rowena Killick

March 23 2018
My dream job as a zoo vet

Rowena has saved a mother gorilla and her baby, and caught lemurs falling out of trees – no wonder this Totterdown vet doesn't want another job

Pictured:Top, baby gorilla Afia, whose life was saved by Rowena and a huge veterinary and medical team 18/Rowena Killick with fur seal at Bristol Zoo Gardens

Above: Rowena and one of her charges – a fur seal at Bristol Zoo


Rowena Killick wanted to be a vet since she was 8. Now she’s got her dream job at Bristol Zoo, reports Beccy Golding


ROWENA Killick has a job that is a dream for many – she’s a vet at Bristol zoo. 

Rowena moved to Bristol in 2006, to take up the job. She commutes to Clifton daily, from Knowle, by bike, but also works at the zoo’s Wild Place, a large site near the Cribbs Causeway, with parks, trails, gardens and walks. 

“I’d always wanted to be a vet, from about the age of eight. I used to watch James Herriot (a hugely popular BBC drama about a vet in the Yorkshire Dales – my mum tells the story of us going to the zoo when I was three and a keeper asked ‘who wants a snake around their neck?’ Of course it was me!”

Single-minded, Rowena choose her GCSEs and A Levels (biology, chemistry and maths) specifically with a veterinary career in mind, “even though I was repeatedly told I wouldn’t get in,” – there are only a small number of places to train – “and A Level requirements were higher than doctors.” She got a place, and completed a five-year degree at the University of Edinburgh, becoming a bachelor of veterinary medicine and surgery (BVM&S). 

“Though very similar, each vet degree is called something different,” she says, “so you can tell which uni vets went to by the name of their qualification.” Then she was “straight out as a vet – it was quite terrifying – 23 and let loose on the public! This was 20 years ago – now new vets have a year of supervised practice.” 

Rowena’s first job was “at a mixed practice in Banbury. Mostly domestic animals, and rabbits (which are classed as exotics).” 

Her first veterinary adventure was when she did three months voluntary work in Thailand, “working with rescued wildlife – which turned out to be mostly stray dogs. There was a lot of neutering stray dogs on a table in the grounds of a monastery! The monks helped us out a lot. Because they are Buddhist they don’t put down stray dogs, there was an enclosure in the grounds of a big temple for any that were unfit to survive in the wild – they lived as a pack, it was very interesting.”

Rowena then did a one year MSc masters in wild animal health at the Royal Veterinary Collegewith training at London zoo – “which basically teaches you how to be a zoo vet – you learn about wildlife in the wild and in zoos.”

She got a three-year residency at Bristol Zoo, and then was offered the permanent job she has now. Since then she has had some dream-vet experiences. 

“We used to joke on the MSc – it’s every zoo vet’s dream to work with wildlife in the wild and feel like you’re saving the world – because there’s no money in it!” In 2015 Rowena got her chance – a project in Madagascar. “Bristol zoo has a field station in the middle of the forest, set up by Dr Christoph Schwitzer, the zoo’s science and conservation director, around 15 years ago. 

“There was no access by road. We drove from the capital, Tana, took two boats, and then trekked for two hours, with our luggage carried on a zebu (native cattle) cart. 

“I spent two and a half weeks supporting a PhD student researching behaviour in an endangered, nocturnal lemur species – the sahamalaza sportive lemur. They needed a vet to sedate the lemurs to put radio collars on so they could be tracked. We also took blood and faecal samples and checked their health. 

“We had a CO2-powered dart gun [to sedate the animals] but that broke. Luckily a local Madagascan student was amazing with an old-fashioned blowpipe! In the daytime we’d find the lemurs in their sleeping holes, or at night they’d be leaping around in the trees – we’d hold a sheet underneath to catch them!

“The camp was in secondary forest – lots of bamboo. Most of the rain forest has been destroyed, it’s very depressing, there is only forest around the coast, the middle is scrub, deforested, and in the city the river was full of plastic. The field station is protected by guards and trackers.”

Then in 2016 Rowena was involved in a highly-publicised case of a baby gorilla born at the zoo, delivered by caesarean section. “It was February half-term. My boss and the other staff vet were away. Me and our resident Charlotte were the two vets there that week. We knew Kera was pregnant, and coming to the end of her term. At the start of the week she was a bit off-colour, we hoped it was a cold but as the week progressed we realised something was wrong. 

“We tested her urine and there was protein present, so we were worried she might have pre-eclampsia (potentially life-threatening for mother and baby). I had to make the decision to anaesthetise Kera to investigate, and possibly perform a caesarean. We called in a specialist ultra-sonographer, and Professor Cahill, a (human) fertility specialist who works at Bristol University and St Michael’s hospital, who had given us advice on gorilla fertility in the past, he brought with him obstetrics and gynaecology specialist registrar, Aamma Ali.  

“I anaesthetised Kera with a dart gun and we transferred her to the vet block. The scan showed the baby wasn’t very responsive and we made the decision to perform a caesarean.” Rowena supervised the team while Professor Cahill and his colleague performed the caesarean. “It took two hours to get baby Afia to breathe on her own.”

This wasn’t the end of the story. “Kera was really sick, she had severe anaemia. It took months for her to recover and more human medics were involved in her treatment. Baby Afia was hand-reared by keepers, and eventually, at eight months old, another gorilla, Romina, adopted her. She was trained with a teddy bear to take the baby and then give her back to the keepers for feeding. Romina and Afia are still together. Kera is healthy now, and Afia and Kera play together.” A happy ending. “And since then another gorilla at the zoo has had a baby naturally.”

For some, the idea of captive animals can be controversial. “I understand people’s concerns around zoos,” Rowena says, “some say why can’t you put animals back in the wild? But there’s not enough wild left – it’s tragic, in the last 30 years, how much has been lost – and wild animals aren’t safe in many places in the world. It can also be hard to engage people with the conservation message, or how amazing nature is, without them seeing it for themselves – it would be good if they could.

“Modern zoos in the UK try really hard to have high welfare standards and conservation is more and more important. Bristol zoo has reduced the number of big animals – the collection fits with the space better now. Gorillas, lions and fur seals are the only big species. The okapi are up at Wild Place – it’s a huge estate with ancient woodlands. In fact we are fundraising to reintroduce ancient species there – we already have wolves, the plan is for bears, and, long-term, wolverines and lynxes.

“Some people think zookeepers are like jail keepers, but they are the most amazing people to work with – who care so much, work hard, love animals. You wouldn’t do this job if you didn’t care – it’s not paid enough!”

I asked Rowena if she had plans for more animal adventures. “There is enough here,” she laughs, “Wild Place is a work in progress – I get to work with giraffes and cheetahs, which I’ve never worked with before. My favourite animals are ones that look like lots of different animals stuck together – like okapis and aye-ayes!” And at home there’s George the ginger cat, “also known as Butterball! He’s an embarrassment – he’s so fat! We’ve had him for 13 years. We got him from a rescue centre in Brighton. He’s got issues – once he stole the prawns off our neighbour’s barbecue!”

Rowena lives in Knowle with her partner and their two boys, who go to Hillcrest primary school – she’s been in to talk to her son’s reception class. “They take my job in their stride. They love going to Wild Place and the zoo but they are a bit blasé. Our five-year-old shows people around like he’s at home!

 “I love living in South Bristol – there’s a contingent of us at the zoo who live here – we joke that it is the best part of the city. I think it’s a classic south-of-the-river thing – it’s quite arty, with a lot of nice communities. Where I live is an amazing community, people really support each other and are really down to earth. There are nice parks… and the graveyard (Arnos Vale) – I love the fact that I can hear owls from my house, see bats, see and hear native wildlife.”