They are unpredictable, dangerous and wild, but they still need our care and attention because they are also living beings like us !

Ruchika Lakshmanan, our next pathbreaker, Wildlife Veterinarian at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, works for the welfare and good health of reptiles by treating them, diagnosing their issues, understanding their behaviour and working for their betterment.

Ruchika talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her master’s thesis that required her to be up-close with Royal Bengal Tigers, her work on the conservation of the Ghariyal and treating a massive saltwater crocodile to check for its well being.

For students, very few careers give you the satisfaction of not just viewing wildlife but also serving nature by providing better conditions for wildlife to thrive.

Ruchika, Your background?

I am Dr. Ruchika Lakshmanan; I grew up in Mumbai and did my schooling till 12th from D.A.V. Public School, Airoli. Since my childhood, I have been passionate about being a Doctor as my aunt is a Doctor, and I loved Biology as a subject. There were no other options in my mind other than being a Doctor. 

Because I grew up in Parel, Mumbai, I used to see K.E.M hospital on one side and Bombay Veterinary Hospital on the other side, that made me wonder how animals were being treated. My grandfather used to take me to Veer Mata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan And Zoo in the mornings as my parents were working.

When I look back, I feel I was destined to be an animal doctor rather than a human doctor.

Though my parents have done basic graduation, they still gave the freedom to me and my brother in choosing our career paths and education. My father pursued B.A. (Economics), and is doing his business now, and my mother finished her B.Com. She currently takes home tuitions and works as a shadow teacher for a child with special needs.

My school shaped me as an outspoken individual and I didn’t exclude myself from participating in any extra-curricular activities. I was a sports person in school, participated in elocutions, debates, dancing, annual days and was vice-captain of my house. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my B.V.Sc & A.H. (to elaborate, it is Bachelors of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry), from Bombay Veterinary College (currently, known as Mumbai Veterinary College). After 5 years of dedicated studies and internships, I became an Animal Doctor. For my post-graduation (rather say specialization), I completed my M.V.Sc in Wildlife Science (Masters of Veterinary Science in Wildlife Science) from Madras Veterinary College. Today, I am a Wildlife Veterinarian which means a Veterinarian (Animal Doctor) specialized for Wild animals. During my Masters, I worked with Royal Bengal Tigers at Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Chennai, where I was involved in non-invasive assessment of the health and reproductive status of tigers at the Zoo. Currently, I am working as a Zoo Veterinarian at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, founded by Zai Whitaker and Padma Shri Romulus Whitaker. It is a reptile zoo, which has 15 species of crocodiles, out of 22 different species of snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises specific to India and from other parts of world. We also work for the conservation of the Gharial and other critically endangered species through conservation breeding.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I would rather say that I didn’t choose my career but my career chose me. Today, I am where I am because of my parents and my mentors. Moreover, I also believe that when you’re a good listener and utilize opportunities coming down your path, it really helps in choosing the right career.  

I secured good grades in my 10th exams. AIPMT (CBSE based) was the major exam to get into AIIMS and other top medical colleges for a career in medicine. I continued in my school till 12th and joined Akash institute to prepare for entrance exams. Unfortunately, I couldn’t cope up with Akash, as being a restless individual, I understood that I needed a tutor for a one-on-one approach since classroom teachings wouldn’t work for me. In 2011, after 12th, though I attempted all top medical college exams (like AIPMT, JIPMER, AFMC and CMC), I unfortunately couldn’t clear any. Then I took a drop for a year and started preparing for Maharashtra CET and joined Kalarashukla classes for the same. That year, I gave each and every medical college exam. Though I couldn’t get into the government medical/ top medical colleges, I got seats in private medical colleges and a dental seat in Karad Dental College. I rejected medical seats in private medical colleges because I believed in myself. I knew that my passion for medicine worked on principles which I didn’t want to break. I took a dental seat, but still wasn’t happy.

When I went for counseling (medical admissions) with my best friend at K.E.M hospital, I saw the Bombay Veterinary College which is just behind, and a thought went over that I wanted to be a doctor, and that dental is not going to satisfy my passion for treating and serving mankind. I just thought for a second, why not try to be a Veterinary Doctor as they also serve mankind at a greater level and treat their patients who can’t speak; moreover it is always a challenge to do good for something which doesn’t owe you anything.

I still remember, I saw the college and in one go decided that not everyone gets a second chance and this is for me. It was the last date for applying for admissions and luckily the admissions were based on the PCB Maha-CET score and my score was good. I called my parents and told them that I wanted to do veterinary and not dental and I wanted to cancel admission for dental. My parents didn’t ask me anything and just told me that if I had decided what I wanted to do, they were with me. ‘Please go ahead’ were the words of my parents and I realize today that those words directed my life, and my career. I seriously don’t regret not being a human Doctor because I was always destined to be a Wildlife Veterinarian (Doctor for Wild animals).

After getting the Doctor’s degree, for my post-graduation, I had a good score to be an animal gynecologist or a veterinary public health specialist. Yet, I had always dreamt of being at Madras Veterinary College and doing something exceptional in the field of veterinary science. My mentor Dr. Shilpa Modekar, persuaded me to take up Wildlife Science. No one could believe that, the year I took admission for Wildlife Science (M.V.Sc), the seat had not yet opened, but during my counseling for specialization, it opened and I took it. I completed my post-graduation with flying colours and the subject I worked on just took me beyond my expectations as I worked with Royal Bengal Tigers. My professors and my guide are still strong pillars for me, because of whom I am a Wildlife Vet. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As I said, I didn’t plan for this career, it was gifted to me. Yet, to get into this, one needs to clear the entrance exam after 12th. According to the merit rankings, one can get into colleges in their state or in other states with a good All India ranking. After 5 yrs of hardcore B.V.Sc & A.H training, one gets awarded a Doctor’s degree, as it happens in human medicine. In order to get the degree, one has to do internships wherein we learn about all aspects of veterinary medicine and animal husbandry. It involves working in labs, veterinary dispensaries, poultry farms, village animal polyclinics and zoos. Once we receive the degree, we have to write an All India ICAR-PG entrance to get into a top veterinary specialization in any of the colleges in India. Though a few of the veterinary colleges have their own entrances, first preference goes to their own state students and then to other states. On the basis of merit, you get your specialization. As I got a good ranking, I got the opportunity to take Wildlife Science as my post-graduation subject.

Can you tell us about your work with wild animals and reptiles?

My experience of working with tigers can’t be put forth in words, it was just extraordinary. Since my thesis included observation of their behavior, I used to sit near their enclosure for around 5-6 hours. Initially, they saw me as a stranger and hence used to come near the place I used to sit and would walk across me continuously, though obviously, we were separated by a cage. After a week or so, they got used to me and considered me as a part of their enclosure. While being with them, I understood that whether it is a wild or domestic animal, no animal attacks without a reason. Every living thing has its own private space, the moment we cross that limit we are in trouble. Animals communicate with their facial expression, and once we understand it, we become one amongst them. Tigers play around like babies, their massive strength is incredible; the best thing is their roar and their walk, just like a king. Tiger cubs behave just like puppies and kittens. We need to cuddle and play with them. Tigers are super active and have unmatched energy, and the moment you keep enrichment for them in their enclosure, they will use it in every possible way. They do exhibit emotions like mother-offspring, wherein the mother imprints offsprings with different life skills; they show respect, love, harmony, dominance and many other traits just like us. We mush change our mindset regarding these wild animals, because if we behave properly and don’t invade their private space, they won’t hurt you. Since these animals have huge strength, so normally, when I have to be close to them I need to be careful and cautious as their intention is never to hurt us.

I first started working with snakes and other reptiles in 2017 and today I am a zoo vet at the world’s most renowned reptile zoo, The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, where I work with crocodiles and other reptiles. Unlike mammals, reptiles are very difficult in terms of understanding, diagnosing and treating conditions. They generally mask illnesses and symptoms and the point when they actually show their illness, will be their last day. Therefore, it’s a great challenge to treat reptiles and save their lives.

Many a times, after surgery, we have to keep them in ambient temperature and humidity, because their recovery from anesthesia takes a lot of time. I have to work on the doses and ambient environmental conditions so that the reptiles recover at a faster rate. While working with venomous snakes and crocodiles, I do have a 2% fear, though I believe that fear is because I respect those animals and not because they are dangerous. For us, it takes only few days to recover from an injury, but for these animals, as their skin texture is different, it takes a months to heal and come back to normalcy. At that time we need to give them a balanced diet, maintain space, and treat them in every way possible to prevent secondary infections. Many times when they go off feed, we have to find ways to feed them, prevent them from other comorbidities and many more such problems. I respect every veterinarian for the sole reason that we try to save these living creatures in every possible way. 

How did you get your first break? 

Fortunately, I got my job on the day I submitted my thesis and got my M.V.Sc (Wildlife Science) degree in my hand. Generally, wildlife is a difficult field compared to other veterinary disciplines. Here, we need to approach and mail institutions based on our profile or our post-graduation research. I got into Madras Crocodile Park after I mailed and expressed my interests in working with reptiles as I had an experience of working with wild animals like tigers, snakes, crocodiles, lizards, exotic pets, birds, etc. during my post-graduation.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: The biggest challenge I have faced as a vet is in handling humans, as animals are better to deal with than humans, because making people understand about our work is the difficult part. Fortunately, I have got more patience in handling humans, thanks to the animals I work with.

Challenge 2: Everyday, learning new animal behavior and diagnosing conditions is a major aspect in wildlife as the animals fight till the end and one day we find them dead. Right calls have to be taken at the right time, as while dealing with animals, there should be no injury to animals as well as the humans working with them. 

Challenge 3: In India, we don’t get much freedom to work with wildlife as there are lots of permissions involved. But nevertheless, we work for the betterment of wildlife in whatever way possible. Finding that way is a bigger challenge. Unlike other animals, wild animals don’t entertain human touch and get stressed very easily due to which their health can deteriorate further. Understanding this psychology, finding different techniques to non-invasively diagnose and treat animals is a bigger challenge which needs knowledge, patience and perseverance.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently working as a Zoo Veterinarian at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology. This is the only Zoo with only reptiles in India. As a Zoo Vet, I work for the welfare and good health of reptiles. My job includes treatment of sick animals, diagnosing their issues and working on them for their betterment, as well as understanding their behavior and providing enrichment to them so that they are stress free. It basically includes all vet related work as well as research. Apart from a general vet related work, who just treats injuries/diseases, I work on different aspects of veterinary research which needs to be standardized for reptiles, like blood values, vitamin and mineral values in the body, endocrinology (hormones), endoscopy, laparoscopy as well as radiography (X-rays). As a Wildlife and Zoo Vet, I have to even work on management and husbandry aspects as they play a vital role in the good health of animals.

Generally, when we work on wild animals or reptiles, we don’t have a typical operation theatre concept as the animals are huge. But in that scenario as well, we work at our very best and provide the animal the necessary environment to heal and recover. Many a times, I treat animals on the field within 30 minutes of capture, as the reptiles can get stressed after that. I have successfully saved their lives. We have treated reticulated pythons, muggers, gharials, turtles and tortoises with both basic treatment protocols and surgeries.

Currently, we are even working on non-invasive disease diagnosis, standardization of values through faecal biochemistry rather than blood, and nutrition analysis in reptiles using feeds and stress analysis. I firmly believe that wild animals are blessed to fight and survive; hence I work more on prevention than cure because if we provide them with better conditions and care, there is hardly a chance that their health would get affected.

What are the skills needed to be a Wildlife Doctor?

So first of all one needs to complete B.V.Sc & A.H. to be an animal doctor. Then you need to do a post-graduation/specialization in wildlife science, work as an intern or a research fellow in zoos, to gain experience and skills. To be practically sound as a Doctor, you need to first be sound in theory and then use an amalgamation of theory and practice for the welfare of wild animals. Moreover, this field demands being thorough with newer scientific papers and recent work done, hence a doctor needs to be updated in all aspects and should have amazing colleagues and seniors, attend workshops and conferences etc.

A typical day involves looking after the younger reptiles, making a visit throughout the park, talking to keepers and curators and understanding each and every animal. It involves gathering information regarding their feed, urine and faecal data, any abnormalities noticed, research activities, treatment and diagnosis. Every day we learn something new, and that’s why this profession is not monotonous. We need to have tremendous patience, perseverance, determination and a soulful intention to work with these animals.

How does your work benefit society? 

Many people question, what is the point of saving wildlife, or what is the point of saving tigers, leopards, crocodiles or snakes. This would be a great platform to tell them that conserving wildlife conserves the ecosystem.

Tigers, Crocodiles and Leopards are the top most predators in the food chain. Imagine a scenario where all top predators die. In that case, there would be destruction in the food chain as there would be no living thing to control herbivores. Hence a huge population of herbivores will destroy all vegetation, and this will further affect the environment and weather pattern, finally leading to apocalypse.

Therefore, each and every element in the food chain is important in maintaining the balance and harmony in nature and our ecosystem which further leads to abundance in natural resources and sustainable development. 

Thus, I can proudly say that as a Wildlife Veterinarian, I am serving nature and mankind. I believe every living thing on this earth has the right to live, and we cannot impose our superiority on anyone, as every living being is important. I feel really great that I serve the ones which don’t owe me anything, yet I want to help them survive. My patients don’t speak to me but communicate in many different ways and I understand that by serving for them, which makes me believe that this career chose me.

I would want many of the youngsters to come and join this field so as to make this world a better place to live in.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I had an opportunity to be a part of hand-raising a tiger cub, which filled me with joy which I had never felt ever in my life. That was the time, when I called my mom and my mentor, and told them that this is what I wanted to do in my life and that I would put my heart and soul to do good for wildlife.

In the first month of my job, I got to do endoscopy for a 17ft huge saltwater crocodile to check for its well being. I felt really proud of myself that I could do it.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to all students is to never lose hope. In today’s world, a combination of hard work and smart work is the best combo. Always seek the right opportunities to work on and be a good listener. The moment you are a good listener, you can analyze and interpret many things which will pave the way for your excellence.

Many times, the second chances worked for me and they were the actual paths where I wanted to be. I don’t regret not being a human doctor as I feel this is the place where I have to be. In our hunger to succeed, we sometimes choose a path which may be wrong and hence we lose, not because we have not put enough effort into it. During such times, we do get direction boards, in some way or the other, but we need to be good listeners and observers, so that we don’t miss them.

Second chance comes only for those who try for the first time with a full heart and soul. Hard work in the right direction and being optimistic always leads to excellence and then to success.

Future Plans?

I aim to do a PhD and be a field researcher. My ambition is to do a lot for at least one species of wildlife or for a specialized technique, which can be utilized worldwide. My hardcore interest lies in developing non-invasive techniques to diagnose and treat wild animals so that we don’t have to restrain or anaesthetize them, as wild animals get into stress very easily. Hence, I want to work on the lines of endocrinology, behavior and conservative medicine in the field of wildlife to conserve wildlife.

Thank you

Dr. Ruchika Lakshmanan

B.V.Sc & A.H., M.V.Sc (Wildlife Science)

Wildlife/Zoo Veterinarian