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Dr Emma Hall has always had a love of exotic animals but knew that setting up The Wild Vet in Sydney’s inner west was a risky move. By Kerryn Ramsey
After spending a few years working as a locum in different clinics to hone her exotics skills, new graduate Dr Emma Hall applied for a loan to build her own practice from scratch. She was pleasantly surprised when the loan was approved and found offices in a building that could be converted into her dream practice.
“The site was originally a shearing shed and I didn’t anticipate the challenges that come with setting up a practice in a heritage building,” she says. “Heritage issues delayed all of the DA approvals and I had to work within the envelope of the building. It took a while but with lots of help from friends and family, eventually I had a beautiful place to work.”
Dr Hall had obtained a science degree in marine biology and biological sciences before graduating as a vet from the University of Sydney in 2016. Her intention was to create a practice with a focus on exotics and wildlife work. The big gamble was that her brand-new build was located in Sydney’s gentrified inner-west suburb of Glebe. Would this area have enough exotics work to keep the business running?
“I’d done my research and knew a couple of other clinics in the area were getting a fair bit of exotics work,” she says. “I was also certain that the usual work with dogs and cats would help support the clinic financially while word was getting out that we also treat exotic pets. I opened The Wild Vet in 2020. Two weeks later, the first COVID lockdown took place.”
A rocky couple of years followed but as her reputation spread, the exotics work increased. Today, the practice is extremely busy and according to Dr Hall, on some days exotics make up to 90 per cent of the workload. In 2022, The Wild Vet was a finalist in the City of Sydney’s local business awards.
Exotics and their owners
The range of animals that Dr Hall treats is wide and varied. While there are all the popular inner-city breeds of pets—French bulldogs, oodles, cats—she also treats rabbits, birds, different species of parrots, and a wide variety of reptiles.
“Reptiles are one my main areas of interest so it’s wonderful to have so many on my books,” says Dr Hall. “I desex a lot of bearded dragons and I enjoy that very fine surgery.”
Clients of The Wild Vet are families, kids and a raft of breeders. While most are residents living in the inner west suburb, many clients travel great distances.
“I have people drive up from Victoria to see us,” says Dr Hall. “Other clients drive down from Tamworth and Armidale. Often, they’ve heard good things about us from other exotics owners and decide to make the journey. In other cases, they’ve seen a local vet who isn’t experienced with their exotic animal and they visit us for a second opinion.”
One of Dr Hall’s ambitions when opening the clinic was to treat wildlife with the same level of care that a private patient receives. She has successfully put this concept into practice and her association with several zoos and wildlife parks often sees cases referred to The Wild Vet.
“We had a quokka in our care for a week and we’re in the process of designing a prosthetic beak for a kookaburra,” says Dr Hall. “We’ve dealt with echidnas, wallabies and penguins. We’ve placed braces on a macaw, performed rectal surgery on an inland taipan and amputated the tail off a large goanna. I love that no two days are ever the same at The Wild Vet.”
Dr Hall has chosen to run The Wild Vet in a manner similar to human hospitals. When a person enters an emergency department, a nurse collects all their details and a full history before they see a doctor. The same thing happens at The Wild Vet. Much of exotic pet medicine is husbandry-based so the nurses collect a history and highlight any potential husbandry problems. It helps free up the vet’s time and is a great way to build relationships with clients.
“We offer a thorough experience,” says Dr Hall. “Our consult times are between 30 minutes and an hour. The nurses do all the discharge work and show the owners how to medicate their pets. Most practices could benefit from such a system as it frees the vet’s time to use their veterinary skills.”
Initially, The Wild Vet offered a mobile service that was operated by Dr Hall. These days, the practice has grown so busy and clients are so widespread, this services is not feasible. “We’ve replaced it with a telehealth service that includes video calls and that’s working really well,” says Dr Hall.
With a passion for wildlife that extends beyond The Wild Vet, Dr Hall spends her spare time caring for injured wildlife and mentoring carers. Many of the animals are in a critical state when she first receives them.
“Most wildlife care organisations have their resources stretched to the limit,” says Dr Hall. “If there is no-one available for an animal that needs around-the-clock care, I’ll take it home. My poor husband has been roped in to look after an injured possum, feed a kangaroo joey and help raise bat pups.”
An active member of Sydney Wildlife Rescue, Dr Hall trains carers in the correct techniques to look after various types of animals. She’s on call if they are having difficulties and can instruct them on the best way to move forward.
“Wildlife is my passion but it costs my clinic a huge amount of money to look after these injured animals,” says Dr Hall. “It’s a balancing act to make it all work but it’s the reason I became a vet. Even if it’s not financially viable, it’s extremely emotionally rewarding when you’re able to care for an animal and release it back into the wild.”
Along with a house full of injured wildlife, Dr Hall also owns four rescue dogs, a rescue cat, a rescue macaw and a couple of rescue parrots. She is committed to finding homes for rescue animals or, at least, getting them moved to no-kill shelters.
“If a client can’t afford surgery or treatment for their pet and the animal is facing euthanasia, we’re willing to have them surrendered into our care,” says Dr Hall. “We’ll cover the cost of treatment and do our best to rehome them. I would work for free—all day, every day—if I could, but that doesn’t keep the clinic open.”
If a client is willing to euthanise an animal, there’s no reason for them not to surrender it. Most of the time they’re grateful for the offer. A byproduct of this attitude is the nurses at The Wild Vet also own a large number of rescue animals that have come through the clinic.
“Unwanted animals in Australia are a huge problem,” says Dr Hall. “I’m not a fan of breeders when there are so many animals available from shelters and rescue centres. People breeding even more animals is simply not needed.”
The next thing Dr Hall wants to do is get The Wild Vet registered as a charity so they can accept donations. She also has aspirations of moving to larger premises with an expanded wildlife ward and increased teaching capabilities for veterinary staff and students wanting to upskill in wildlife medicine.
“To be a tax-deductible registered charity would certainly help,” says Dr Hall. “My working life is a constant balancing act between my head, my heart and my wallet.”