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In a career spanning over three decades, Dr Larry Vogelnest has helped protect the future of a number of legacy species. Now Taronga Zoo’s top vet is inciting a new breed of crusaders to champion the cause. By Tracey Porter
Dr Larry Vogelnest understands better than most what’s at stake should any more of Australia’s unique wildlife become extinct—least of all one of its most iconic.
As the senior veterinarian at Taronga Zoo, he has more than a passing interest in the Federal Government’s decision to downgrade koalas in several states from vulnerable to endangered in a bid to protect dwindling populations.
As the man responsible for the health of the zoo’s animal population and the 1200 or so sick, injured and orphaned native Australian wildlife admitted to the Taronga Wildlife Hospital each year, Dr Vogelnest has seen firsthand the devastating effects prolonged drought, Black Summer bushfires, and the impacts of disease, urbanisation and habitat loss have had on the species.
A world class specialist in the health and reproductive management of small populations, Dr Vogelnest and his talented team now find themselves at the coalface of efforts to help mitigate the threats faced by Australia’s favourite marsupial.
Taronga has long identified certain legacy species that it is focusing its conservation efforts on and fortunately koalas sit near the top of its list.
While it has been heartbreaking to watch their numbers dwindle, it would be worse still if the koala was lost completely, Dr Vogelnest says.
“It’s a very sad situation… but by being listed as endangered, at least there are now obligations to be more serious about their conservation. Although the change in status is not something to celebrate, we can only hope that it will bring their plight into sharp focus and result in greater protection for koalas, now and in the long term.”
An early passion
Whether tackling artificial insemination for the Asian elephant population, performing life-saving, world-first surgery on a female sun bear or scaling a 20-foot Vietnamese cliff to dart one of the rarest primates in the world, the Cat Ba langur monkey, it is clear that 30-plus years in the game has dulled none of the good doctor’s enthusiasm for his work.
A lifetime conservationist who has been at the heart of some of Australia’s leading wildlife conservation and breeding projects, Dr Vogelnest was exposed to veterinary work from a young age after spending countless hours hanging out at his father’s domestic animal veterinary practice in his native South Africa.
Having never shown an interest in human medicine, although noting “it probably would have proved a bit more lucrative”, Dr Vogelnest was just 18 when he was accepted into the veterinary science programs in both Australia and South Africa.
Aware that his family intended moving Down Under the following year, he chose Sydney University as where he wanted to complete his BVSc degree.
His had barely recovered from his jetlag when he was thrown in the wildlife deep end, via a voluntary stint on a three-week kangaroo project out in the NSW Central West.
The experience was to prove a critical turning point in his career, not only reaffirming his commitment to helping nurture native species but also serving to connect him to a brotherhood of like-minded individuals, many of whom would later pass through the ranks at Taronga.
“Wildlife was my passion, it wasn’t just about doing veterinary work so it was a great starting point in terms of developing a network of people that had the same passion as me,” Dr Vogelnest says.
Graduating in 1984, Dr Vogelnest worked in a mixed private practice before travelling overseas for nearly three years, backpacking through Asia and Europe and working in England. Upon his return to Australia, he worked in an avian practice in Sydney before starting as a veterinary intern at Taronga Zoo in 1990.
In 1996 he gained membership to the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists by examination in Zoo Medicine while also completing a Masters in Veterinary Studies in Wildlife Medicine and Husbandry.
Barring a 12-month sabbatical, he has been employed by the Taronga Conservation Society Australia in a range of roles ever since.
Passing on his knowledge
Having delved into all aspects of wildlife medicine and reproductive management, Dr Vogelnest considers himself extremely fortunate to have had such a hands-on role protecting and caring for vulnerable animals.
With every day different from the last, he has been involved in some of the most complex animal transfers in Taronga’s recent history, including the transportation of the western lowland gorilla family from a Dutch zoo, relocating a black rhinoceros from Taronga’s sister zoo, Western Plains, to England as part of a global breeding program and moving Taronga’s chimpanzee community to its newly renovated sanctuary.
He is a firm believer that being at the forefront of such innovation brings with it an obligation to share any discoveries for others to learn from.
“I almost feel like that to not do it would be negligent. We’re exposed to so many things that are new or novel that people haven’t seen or done before and not to get that out there for others to learn from is a waste. I know it drives other people nuts when I say, ‘We must get this or that published’ but [my published works] were driven by the fact that none of that information was readily available.”
Nowhere was this more evident than during the Black Summer bushfires in 2019/20.
Deployed to help out in Victoria, Dr Vogelnest quickly realised there was a desperate need to make information on how to treat burnt wildlife available.
Within days he developed an online resource. Within days his advisory piece was posted for free online, where it has since been accessed by thousands of vets both domestically and internationally.
In February it was updated.
“I’ve drawn not only on my experience of the Black Summer fires but that of many other vets who worked with burnt wildlife, and we’ve learned an enormous amount. There are fires going on right now and there will be again so to have these types of resources is critically important,” he says.
Each day is different
Challenges are what Dr Vogelnest does best.
In 2010 he was forced to diagnose a case of tuberculosis in one of Taronga’s elephants. It was, he says now, one of the toughest times in his career.
“The implications of having TB in one of our animals and then the risk of it spreading to other animals, which it did… that was certainly an extremely challenging situation. But at the end of it all, it was an amazing experience in terms of learning about the disease to the point that you become an expert on it. Now I’m often consulted by vets around the world who are dealing with similar situations and contact me for advice.”
More recently the trials he has faced have had less to do with his clinical work and everything to do with the frustrations of not having enough hours in the day.
Quite aside from his day-to-day clinical work and the overseeing of the numerous conservation projects and research projects his team are involved in, there are also the countless emails and inquiries received from vets and zoos all around the world seeking his assistance.
Not to forget the small matter of Dr Vogelnest’s new pet project—his worksite’s new $74 million state-of-the-art wildlife hospital, scheduled to open in 2024.
“It’s busy”, he admits, “the work is endless.
“At the moment we’re well into the planning phases. When I started here, we had less than half the number of people working here that we’ve got now. It was already a pretty substantial vet hospital but we’ve certainly outgrown it in terms of facilities.
“We have good resources generally, but the building is old, the rooms are small and it has outgrown its functionality. This is why we’re going to be building a wonderful new hospital which will hopefully be opened while I’m still capable of working in it.”
Hospital rebuilds aside, Dr Vogelnest says while working with free-ranging wildlife and injured, orphaned and sick animals is immensely satisfying, the pinnacle as a wildlife vet has to be finding oneself in a position to contribute to tangible conservation projects.
This is particularly true of conservation projects that are actually making a difference to species, he says.
“Around 15 years ago there was a real change in focus at the zoo to concentrate on conservation, research and education. We’re involved in many fantastic conservation programs, many of which are not on display at the zoo, but done behind the scenes.
“I think it really is the icing on the cake in terms of what we do as vets. It also makes you feel good about working at a zoo. We used to be a zoo that did a little bit of conservation but now we’re a conservation organisation that actually happens to be a zoo,” he says.