A keen interest in wildlife can transform into a lifelong mission to relieve injured wild animals of their pain/distress and lead to an opportunity to relive your childhood experiences through the joy and satisfaction of seeing them recover and return to their home, the wild !
Vishakha Vasuki, our next pathbreaker, Wildlife Vet and Assistant Veterinary Surgeon at Similipal Biosphere Reserve, is incharge of the Mobile Veterinary Service unit run by Wildlife Trust of India and works in collaboration with the forest department to rescue and rehabilitate injured and sick wild animals.
Vishakha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her “once in a lifetime” experience spending an incredible three months in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, conducting her masters research on the mountain gorillas in the rainforests of Uganda.
For students, just like the earth was made for all living beings, even doctors are for all living beings – humans, domestic pets and wild animals. The journey of a wildlife vet is exhausting, but the rewards? Totally worth it !
Vishakha, can you tell us what were your initial years like?
I come from a defense background. My father retired as a Group Captain from the Indian Air Force after 28 years of service in 2016. My mother is a teacher and teaches science to primary school children. As you can well imagine, my childhood has been packing my bags and moving to a new state every two years. I changed nine schools till 12th Std and finally settled down in Bangalore. Both my parents are from Karnataka and they were very particular that I go to college in Bangalore and learn some kannada! I grew up mostly in north India and used to primarily converse only in hindi!
Growing up around animals strengthened my passion to serve them and my parents have always encouraged and supported my decision.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
As my goal was pretty clear, I had no confusion as to what to do after 12th. I wrote the Common Entrance Test (CET) for admission into Veterinary College and got into Veterinary College, Hebbal, Bengaluru. It is a rigorous five-year program which covers everything under the sun, from learning about diseases in fish to repairing fractures in goats to managing the accounts of a dairy farm. I feel that veterinarians are one of the most underappreciated people in our country. The knowledge that a veterinarian possesses and the experience that he/she has in every field is quite unparalleled.
I’ve always had a keen interest in wildlife. I grew up watching Animal Planet and National Geographic over Cartoon Network. In my fourth and final year, we were exposed to zoo animal medicine and the possibilities of working as a zoo vet. This line of work was something that excited me and I decided to pursue my post-graduation in Wildlife medicine. Unfortunately, India doesn’t have a great master’s program for wildlife and I started looking at opportunities abroad. My aunt stumbled upon an advertisement in the newspaper about St. George’s University (SGU) in the Caribbean (Grenada) which offered veterinary courses as well. I attended their information session held in Bengaluru and met some great people who encouraged me to apply. Quite fortunately, they had the course that I wanted, the opportunity to do research in Africa and also offered me a fifty percent scholarship based on merit. This was my road to mecca and there was no looking back after that.
What were some of your experiences that spurred you towards such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
A particular incident made me take the decision to become a veterinarian in Class 3. Dad was posted in Chandigarh at that time and we were in an air force colony. One day, I found a very badly injured dog sitting at the bottom of our staircase. It had fractured one of its forelimbs and was unable to walk/move. I tried giving him something to eat but he refused to eat anything. I told my parents, and they called animal rescue services. But nobody turned up and he eventually died. At that moment, I was heartbroken. I wished I knew how to help him and what to do to relieve the pain. It was then that I decided to become a Veterinarian. I badly wanted to help animals in distress and I felt that the best way to do that was to become an animal doctor.
My father loves animals as well, birds in particular. He used to rescue kites, eagles usually injured by the blades of a helicopter and I used to accompany him to the vet for treatment. We also had a “mini- zoo” in our backyard in Chennai, along with a fish pond. We had a couple of parrots, 2 pairs of lovebirds, three pairs of field munias, a baby rabbit, an owl and also a terrapin who used to keep escaping by digging the mud around his enclosure! And of course a dog.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
Our compulsory 6-month internship during undergraduation in various zoos, made me realise the opportunities I had as a wildlife vet. Me and another friend also used to volunteer in Bannerghatta National Park every Sunday during the third and fourth year of college.
Being a veterinary doctor was pretty much set in stone for me, but what to do after graduation was not. Until I got the opportunity to do my post-graduation in Grenada and my masters research on mountain gorillas in the rainforests of Uganda. My advisor and guide Dr. Richard Kabussu was a Ugandan. He knew Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, the founder of an NGO called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in Uganda which worked towards the conservation of mountain gorillas. They also took student researchers from all over the world to conduct studies on gorillas. We got in touch and to get the paperwork processed was a huge ordeal since I was the first student from the university to work with an organization in Africa. Right from getting the visa to getting a research permit took around 5-6 months, but all the effort was worth it in the end. I got to spend an incredible three months in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. The park is home to around 400 mountain gorillas. My work involved collection of fecal (dung) samples from gorilla nests and analysing them for different eggs and endo-parasites (worms that you sometimes find in your stomach/intestines). I was looking at which gorillas have the highest burden of parasites and the potential of these parasites to infect other gorillas, humans as well as livestock. Just like us, the mountain gorillas also live in families. Some of these families are habituated to humans, which means that they are comfortable around human presence. The habituation was done for the purpose of eco-tourism. You can get a gorilla permit for 500 dollars, track the gorillas with the park rangers for an hour, observe their behaviour and click photographs. The trek to the top of the mountain (usually where the gorilla nests are) starts at around 6 am and by the time you come out it will be 4 pm. It is a very tough terrain and a truly impenetrable, deep forest. It is hands down a once in a lifetime experience.
My time in Africa made me fall in love with wildlife all over again. After coming back to India in December 2019, I practiced in my friend’s small animal clinic for a month, but didn’t enjoy a single day of it. I realized that I was happiest amidst nature. I started looking for opportunities to work as a wildlife veterinarian. I got in touch with some of my seniors in the field and asked them if they knew of any opportunities. They did give me a couple of places to try but nothing really worked out at that point. Then the pandemic started and the whole world turned upside down.
How did you get your first break?
I had been following the work done by Wildlife Trust of India since college and had sent them an email a long time back with my CV when I was still in Uganda, and then forgotten all about it. Quite fortunately, they responded in April and asked me if I would be interested in taking up an opportunity in Similipal Biosphere Reserve.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
There were a lot of hurdles along the way, right from my post-grad research to getting a job. I consider myself very lucky to have a solid support system in the form of friends and family who have stood by me through thick and thin. If it was not for them, I don’t know how I would have managed to tide over all the issues I faced.
Challenge 1: My advisor wanted me to work on pet tortoises in Grenada, instead of going to Africa because it was expensive and time consuming.
How I addressed it: I have always been bold and outspoken throughout my life. I have participated in debates, elocution and extempore competitions right from school. I think it helped greatly in shaping who I am today. I wrote a very strong email to my advisor saying, I am ready to withdraw from the program if I don’t get to do what I was promised. I told him that I was ready to put in all the hard work and effort required to make it happen.
Challenge 2 : HR denied me the job at WTI after the first interview, saying they needed someone with more experience.
Again, I communicated to them that I am a very fast learner and am willing to learn and undergo training with senior veterinarians.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work as an Assistant Veterinary Surgeon at Similipal Biosphere Reserve. I am incharge of the Mobile Veterinary Service unit run by Wildlife Trust of India. We work in collaboration with the forest department. We are mostly involved with rescue, rehabilitation, conducting training and capacity building for frontline forest staff.
Basic skills required for the job are what you learn during college, and the rest of course, by experience.
A typical day can vary quite drastically! One day I am running behind an elephant to tranquilise him, nearly getting killed in the process and the other day I am conducting the post mortem of a leopard suspected to have died due to peritonitis ( rupture of the small intestine). One evening is spent treating 7-year old Bablu (a Captive elephant) in my field station for an allergic reaction that he got from eating a tuber in the jungle and the next morning in releasing a Himalayan griffon (a Vulture) back to the wild after treatment.
I love each and everything about this job 🙂
How does your work benefit society?
I truly believe that the earth was made for all beings, not just human beings. Being able to relieve an animal of its pain, distress and seeing it recover gives the feeling of joy and satisfaction which is one of a kind. To quote Dr Jane Goodall “Every single individual matters and makes an impact every single day in the tapestry of life and we have a choice as to what kind of difference we are going to make.”
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
In February this year, a three-day old elephant calf was left behind by his mother and the herd. The forest department rescued the calf and I treated it continuously for 10 days. He started walking after the second day of treatment and I used to walk with him in the range office, feed him milk, make him sleep.
It was exactly like taking care of a toddler. But the infection was too severe and he succumbed on the 10th day. He was very close to my heart and I cried for an entire day after his death. Moments like these test your mental strength and at the same time give you a sense of purpose in life.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
You might not know what to do in life at one point. But that’s okay. Take some time to figure out what excites you, what doesn’t feel like a chore to you, for what would you wake up at even 4:00 am in the morning and look forward to doing it.
Love what you do, do what you love, not because someone is asking you to, but because you want to. Dream big. Don’t be scared. The journey is exhausting, but the rewards? Totally worth it !
Living in the moment as of now 🙂