Dr Jayne Weller’s wild things

Jayne Weller

Dr Jayne Weller with Solo, the young cheetah. Photography: Sean Davey

Hers must be one of the most coveted jobs in the country. Meet Dr Jayne Weller, who counts among her patients cheetahs, deer, lemurs and giraffes, to name but a few. Sarah Thomas reports.

It’s a brilliantly sunny autumn day at Canberra’s National Zoo & Aquarium and things are off to a busy start for senior veterinarian Dr Jayne Weller.

Tia, a spirited two-year-old ring-tailed lemur, has had a stoush with one of her cohorts overnight and hasn’t come off well.

Lemurs, Dr Weller explains, have a high pain threshold so the fact that Tia is not moving her right arm is a cause for concern. There’s a nasty bite wound close to her elbow and an X-ray of a sedated Tia reveals a small bone chip.

“There’s just the tiniest change to the bone. Obviously the bite has gone down that far but there’s no break,” Dr Weller says. “We now know why she’s so sore because a little bone chip like that is not very nice. But it will heal very quickly.”

Tia is prescribed painkillers and antibiotics and will be monitored over the next two weeks but is expected to make a full recovery.

Also needing attention is Solo, a cheetah born at the zoo last November who has been hand-reared. A single cub birth is rare (litters of four to six cubs is common) and mothers find it difficult to produce milk for just one. Solo has a new harness for his daily walks and his keepers want Dr Weller to check the fit. He lives in one of the enclosures adjoining the main vet clinic with his somewhat unlikely best friend, Zama, a border collie/Belgian malinois cross.

“It’s pretty sad to grow up by yourself when you’re a social creature,” says Dr Weller. “And they just love each other.”

Zama’s purpose is to provide the interaction that the social cheetahs need, and the pair feature on the zoo’s Meet a Cheetah program where the public can play with the two boisterous companions. Solo is one of 75 species among the zoo’s 180 animals, and Dr Weller says he’s been one of her biggest successes since she started at the zoo in early 2016.

“He’s been a real challenging case throughout his life. He’s absolutely healthy and beautiful now but there have been times where I have thought, ‘Wow, this is really hard’,” she says.

“It’s high pressure because cheetahs are so endangered. There’s a lot of emotion behind the cheetah; everybody loves them. We want them to breed well in captivity, and to have a successful breeding here was pretty amazing to start with. Then to only have a single cub and know that there’s possibly going to be some problems along the way was pretty stressful.

“Each time he had an issue, I would get him through it. I just felt very satisfied that I was doing the very best that I could and practising really good medicine.”

“I don’t want to just fix the problems as they’re happening; we want to try and do a lot of preventive stuff. So that’s where it becomes quite busy.”—Dr Jayne Weller,  senior vet, National Zoo & Aquarium

Dr Weller, who is 36 and originally from Sydney’s Campbelltown, says this role is her absolute dream job, despite a path towards it that was anything but smooth.

In person, her warm and affable nature doesn’t mask a clear single-mindedness that has led her to one of the most exciting veterinary roles in the country and to spearheading a massive period of growth at the national zoo. She says she can’t remember what first triggered her ambition to work with animals, but it was always there.

“I always wanted to be a vet from when I was really little,” she says. “Apparently I told my parents that when I was six. Mum says she doesn’t remember taking me with an animal to the vet, so she doesn’t even know where it came from.”

Jayne Weller

Feeding deer Spotty and Penny, one of whom has an infected eye, while Hannibal the alpaca looks on.

Dr Weller says she was a good performer in school but sadly her grandfather became ill in her later years and it impacted her HSC results. Falling short of the marks for a veterinary science degree, she did a Bachelor of Arts and Science at the University of NSW, which combined her passion for zoology with her interest in music (at the time she was a keen violinist and played in a string quartet). After finishing her degree, she approached Sydney University about veterinary science, but again fell short of its strict criteria.

In 2004, Dr Weller began working as a zookeeper at Mogo Zoo on the NSW south coast. A vet consulting at the zoo, Mary Atkinson, spotted her potential and brought her into working in her clinic—“I still say my surgery skills came from watching her,” Dr Weller says— and encouraged her to keep pursuing veterinary science.

As a now mature-aged student, Dr Weller was finally accepted by Sydney University in 2007.

“It started to change, the way of letting people in,” she says. “They still wanted you to be excellent at test-taking. But, they also wanted you to be practical and good at communication because there’s no point in being a vet, dealing with people every day, and not being able to communicate.”

Having had her persistence pay off, she knew that exotics were the path for her.

“I always wanted to work with different animals,” she says. “Apparently, I said to my mum that I wanted to be a vet for animals that didn’t have anybody to look after them.”

Her first job was at the University of Sydney’s Avian Reptile and Exotic Pet Hospital at Camden, which she was offered straight out of vet school.

Working with about 60 per cent pets and 40 per cent wildlife, it was often a gruelling job, with 70-hour weeks where she was often left to her own devices in running the clinic.

She left the job in 2013 and, after a stint at an animal sanctuary in Malawi, became senior vet at the Animal Referral Hospital in Homebush under Dr David Simpson and Dr Sarah Goldsmid, while at the same time obtaining an advanced practitioner certificate in zoology medicine through the University of Edinburgh.

“I suspect many vets like myself have dreamed about being an exotics vet but only the rare few, like Jayne, acquire the education to translate that into a reality.”—David Simpson, owner, Animal Referral Hospital

She set up the exotics service, treating a mix of 80 per cent client-owned animals and 20 per cent wildlife, and says she learnt much about how to run a clinic as a profitable business.

Dr Simpson says he always relished the opportunity to work with Dr Weller. “She has an honest, earnest, humble but fun personality,” he says. “I suspect many vets, like myself, have dreamed about being an exotics vet but only the rare few, like Jayne, acquire the education to translate that into a reality.”

Jayne Weller

Hosing down the infected hoof of Hummer the giraffe.

She was then approached about working at the National Zoo and after a six-month trial of working a three- and two-day split across the hospital and the zoo, she landed the job.

Dr Weller’s normal zoo schedule is 25 hours a week with Fridays off and generally 9am-5pm hours, although she is on call 24/7.

As the sole zoo vet, she says the workload is manageable “most of the time. There are some weeks where I think, ‘Oh wow, we need somebody else’, because it’s very hard. I’m trying not to be just a fire engine. I don’t want to just fix the problems as they’re happening; we want to do a lot of preventive stuff. So that’s where it becomes quite busy.”

For example, nutrition is a huge part of her job. She says there isn’t always data on animals’ diets and so it can be trial and error in making improvements. One success has been overhauling the diets of its five red pandas, who she says, were doing a lot of pacing activity.

“Before they were getting quite a bit of fruit, and what’s happened is their pacing has reduced quite a lot,” she says. “We think it’s because their energy in fruit is quite high. So they get spikes like a kid. You give them a sugar hit, they go crazy for a few hours, and then they have this huge dip. And I think that’s what was happening with them.”

In May last year, the zoo unveiled renovations which added 12 hectares onto the existing seven-hectare site, including new homes for white rhinos, maned wolves, zebras and giraffes. Dr Weller expects breeding programs to be a much larger part of the zoo’s activity in the future, and the renovations have also included a completely new vet clinic which opened in December and has tripled her workspace.

It includes a separate sterile area for surgery and holding enclosures for quarantine and recovery purposes. It also includes $250,000 of state-of-the-art equipment including a digital X-ray system, ultrasound equipment and full lab set-up. “It’s about always aiming towards providing gold-standard medicine at all times to every animal in the collection,” she says. “That’s my go-to motivator for every day.”

National Zoo owner Richard Tindale, who bought the zoo with wife Maureen in 1998, says, “At the time when we were recruiting, we needed a veterinarian to not only care for the animals here but also to help with the construction of our vet centre. Jayne was a great fit for this.

“The zoo grew very quickly and it has been a relief to us all to have Jayne here. We are excited about future programs that could eventuate, like reproductive technologies or being involved in research projects with other zoos, universities and in situ conservation efforts.”

Dr Weller’s advice for young students or practitioners is to push through the early years, where there’s a danger of burn-out, and that all experiences contribute to the end game eventually. “I’m not competitive but I am dogged,” she says. “If I want to do something, I will eventually do it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how much I have to do to get there.”

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