A Veterinarian’s Voyage Traveling the World During Covid-19

Gentoo and chinstrap penguins were two of the most commonly spotted penguins around the Antarctic islands and peninsula.

People often ask me why I chose to go to veterinary school in the United Kingdom (UK) instead of the United States. Along with a host of other reasons was the opportunity that veterinary school and licensing structure in the UK provided to travel. Dual veterinary accreditation via the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in the U.S. and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) meant that my professional degree could transfer pretty much anywhere. Needing to do 26 weeks of clinical placements in addition to my final year clinical rotations also meant that I had a lot of time built into my curriculum to go experience how veterinary medicine is practiced around the world.

Between clinical placements, research, and educational travel, I’ve now treated and learned about animals on all seven continents. In addition to the time I’ve spent in U.S. veterinary clinics, I’ve done veterinary placements in every country within the UK, spent two weeks learning how veterinary medicine is practiced in the jungle in the Philippines, traveled around Zanzibar treating every species on the island, worked at a volunteer-run veterinary clinic in the Galapagos for a month, visited the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary in New Zealand and learned about the conservation efforts around rebuilding the takahe population, and even snapped photos of whales for citizen science while on an expedition in Antarctica. Antarctica, as big of an undertaking as it was planned to be, turned out to be even bigger an adventure than anticipated. My plan was to fly into Argentina via Buenos Aires, route from there to the disembarkation point in Ushuaia, attend a 12-day expedition to Antarctica, and route back from Argentina to the UK, where I was meant to finish out the rest of my final year of veterinary school. All went according to plan – until it came to returning from Antarctica. Our expedition set sail on the ninth of March. About a week later, the world around us proceeded to close up borders and go into lockdown. Flights that were meant to carry people out of South America and onwards to wherever our respective homes waited were cancelled. Ushuaia, where we were meant to return to port, informed us that while no one onboard showed signs of Covid-19, our boat was no longer allowed to return to port. The expedition company made the decision to spend an extra few days heading north to Buenos Aires, where the international airport and location of several countries’ embassies boded better. However, as we neared, the Argentinian government sent word that despite having passed 14 days with everyone aboard being free of Covid-19 symptoms and Argentina having been our original port of call, our ship would still be denied entry. So, we needed a third backup plan. Uruguay’s borders were less closed off, and Montevideo was closest. The expedition staff and passengers spent a few frenetic days trying to get through unreliable communication capacity and limited internet to contact embassies, ambassadors, local representatives, friends, family – anyone who could help. The Uruguayan government agreed that as long as anyone planning to disembark remained free of symptoms, wore masks and gloves while disembarking, and had a confirmed flight out on the day of disembarkation, we would be allowed two, possibly three, days in port to get everyone off the boat.

However, all those onboard were told that they would not be let off the ship unless their safe passage onwards were guaranteed – but that if we could not secure a flight onwards within the port’s time constraints, then we would be required to leave Montevideo with the ship – and spend another three weeks traveling to its home port in the Netherlands. Thankfully, everyone who needed to leave the ship was able to work together to obtain passage onwards. After three rounds of securing what then turned into non-viable flights, I was able to get tickets that routed me out of Montevideo to Santiago, Chile, from there to Miami, and finally from Miami to Los Angeles. Whether I will be able to return to the UK before needing to settle more permanently in L.A. for a job after graduation is not clear, but for now, I’m grateful to be somewhere vaguely familiar, and safe. I attend vet school tutorials virtually, contribute to online boards discussing cases, and participate in conferences and projects that have been moved to video chat and social media. I have been around the world with my veterinary degree, but what my field will look like in the future is not clear yet – though I’m eager to find out.

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By Miceala Shocklee


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