Dr. Claire Madden

Vet, creating her future, protecting wildlife.

A career working with animals has got to be up there with most desired jobs – being surrounded by cuddly critters all day as a veterinarian or a zoo keeper the dream for many children. What they don’t tell you at age eight, is that it’s a hard, long path, and one that most never end up taking. But it’s a slog that veterinarian Claire Madden never thought twice at perusing – being a wildlife warrior and conservationist was going to be her career, no matter which path she took to go about it.

Claire is living my childhood dream (it was either that or a flight attendant), not only working as a vet, but her vocation has seen her work across zoos, sanctuaries and even a theme park. While passion has fuelled her journey and given her some incredible opportunities along the way, Claire does not downplay effort it took to get her to where she is today. Starting off as a zoo keeper at Currumbin Sanctuary, a desire to complete a PHD on the humble spiny echidna led to a gentle push from a colleague to complete her veterinary degree.

I met Claire while working at the incredible Healesville Sanctuary, where she was not only an amazing vet but also one of my star media talents! I spent most of my time in awe of the veterinary team’s ability to jump from enormous Red Kangaroos, to itty bitty Corroborree Frogs or delicate, and critically endangered, Helmeted Honeyeaters. The dexterity it takes to perform surgery on such a tiny body still blows my mind.

Claire is now back in her home state of Queensland, on the sunny Gold Coast, where she’s not only taking care of Polar Bears and Dolphins at Sea World, but also still caring for our native wildlife at Paradise Country. But most importantly for Claire, she’s heading up the Sea World marine rescue team to help the Coast’s majestic marine life battle the imposition of the modern man.

Claire Madden is…

Claire Madden is a wildlife conservationist and has been from a very young age. Due to this deep seeded passion for Australian wildlife, it’s led to a plethora of opportunities and taken my life on a diverse, interesting path. It’s led me to some fascinating places.

What do you do, and when did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

So my job at the moment is as a wildlife zoo veterinarian. I currently work at Village Roadshow on the Gold Coast, so that encompasses two sites – Sea World and Paradise Country.

I didn’t always have aspirations to be a vet. I always had aspirations to work with wildlife, and one thing has led to another. As I’ve delved more and more into the career and my passion of wildlife conservation, pathways and opportunities have just opened up for me. And here I am today, loving my life as a full time veterinarian, being able to do magical things for wildlife conservation.

Being a vet is a dream job for a lot of kids, and then add zoo and theme park on top of that! How has that journey been for you?

So the journey for me to get to being the vet here at SeaWorld has been long, and it’s been hard. Naturally anyone that’s pursuing, or wants to pursue, a career in veterinary science, knows it’s not an easy path. But for me, it’s happened naturally, it’s happened fluently and it’s happened without too much effort, because I believe I’ve just followed my heart the whole way. By following my heart, opportunities just became available, and I’ve always stayed true to myself, and by staying true to myself, my passions just shone and opportunities have just come their way.

So I worked incredibly hard to get where I am. I certainly never thought that I would be here in my mid-thirties. And if someone told me in my teens, that this is where I’d be, I would not believe them for a second because it would have just been an unfathomable dream. But it happened, and I’m here, and I’m incredibly grateful every day of my life that I look forward to work. But I suppose you can’t really call it work when you love it so much.

The versatility of vets has always astounded me – you’ve gone from furry little Australian icons to some of the most majestic creatures of the sea – how does your training prepare you for this adaptation?

One of the exciting parts of being a vet is that it is a challenging role and you’ll never know everything. In veterinary medicine, we still have our first principles and basic understanding of anatomy and physiology, and then we apply our pharmacology and surgical principles to that. So we still have that solid grounding knowledge that is applicable across all species.

As a veterinarian, you also need to be able to have the humility to say that you don’t know something, and to be able reach out, and particularly this applies with wildlife emergency medicine, because we don’t know everything. As a profession, we’re still learning every day about the species that we look after in the zoo world. And then apply that to marine mammals, where there’s even less information out there – you really need to reach out, not be afraid to ask and you just got to try. If something works in your favour, then sharing that knowledge is incredibly important as well.

So, because I‘m now working with marine mammals, I’m reaching out as best as I can, and reading and learning. But at the end of the day, they are just mammals just like we are mammals and those principles still apply.

I was always so fascinated, especially when I was working at Healesville Sanctuary, at the procedures being performed on tiny little reptiles and the smaller rodents. It’s just incredible, there’s so much talent in doing that.

As I said, there are those first principles in veterinary medicine that are applicable, no matter what species you’re dealing with, but you do definitely have to be so much more adaptable. The physiology changes considerably when they get really, really small and really, really big, for that matter.

How do you deal emotionally with the heartbreak of end of life procedures on animals?

Euthanasia is a challenging aspect of our role that I don’t think any formal education or formal training can prepare you for. And not only preparing yourself for euthanasia, but the sheer quantity that we have to deal with. For me personally, I suppose there’s plenty of coping mechanisms, one such that being able to euthanise our animals is a treatment. And sometimes it’s a beautiful treatment to be able to offer our animals if they are at that stage of their life where medical and surgical treatment that no longer is warranted. To alleviate suffering, to me, is a real positive thing in those situations, when I know that that treatment is the only treatment that I have left.

No matter if it’s a Common Magpie that’s coming through the hospital with an obvious fractured wing, through to an animal that’s been in the zoo collection for 30 odd years, I still approach it with the same mentality – that I’m giving this animal a peaceful ending.

It comes down to quality of life, doesn’t it?

That’s right. Death can be seen as quite a negative thing, it’s an ultimate decision, but at same time, there’s an element to it that’s quite rewarding and quite positive that you’re able to relieve any pain or suffering that an animal might be enduring.

The bushfire season must be a particularly hard time to work, how do you as a team look after each other?

Those bushfires that we experienced late last year and the beginning of this year were unprecedented times and hopefully something I’ll never have to do again in my lifetime. The sheer catastrophe that occurred across three states and the sheer numbers of wildlife, and ecosystems for that matter, that were just completely destroyed was heartbreaking on many levels. Going into these affected areas and seeing the devastation, it really hurt to the core. It was definitely a collaborative approach between vets and vet nurses, but also care groups – some of the hours they put in was phenomenal.

As a veterinarian, there was only so much we could do. Normally we can help rehabilitate animals and get them back out to the wild. But we had major issues with these particular fire events. One was the sheer devastation that we just couldn’t help all the animals, the injuries were just too far gone. There certainly was a high euthanasia rate. Secondly, those animals that were deemed releasable – we had nowhere to release them to. So it was this double edged sword.

How did we get through that? We just had continue to support each other and think long term. Very quickly, my focus became less about the triage and the care of the wildlife, and more about getting out there and rehabilitating and revegetating,

Six months on and we’re still seeing the flow on effects. I mentioned ecosystems, because we’ve got to not just think about koalas. We’ve got to think about all the little birds and little reptiles and those smaller invertebrates and spiders, and needs of all of those critters that we don’t tend to think about as being cutesy.

We’ve lost whole ecosystems, and six months on that’s become really evident, and really that’s the devastating part is I don’t know if we’ll ever get some of those ecosystems back. We’ve just got to keep looking to the future and doing what we can to try and get some of those habitats back to a viable state.

Tell me about your work in the marine rescue space – I can imagine it would be equal parts rewarding and frustrating?

The marine rescue unit that we have at Sea World is very busy at the moment because we’re in the heart of whale migration. And unfortunately in Queensland we still have shark nets and we do see a lot of marine animals trapped in those shark nets. We’ve already had four whale rescues this season, which is very early to be having that number of rescues, all of which have been successful releases, which is great.

But aside from the shark nets and whale migration this time of year, we’ve got a lot of people out fishing as well. So we’re getting a large influx of waterbirds with fishing line entanglements and fish hook ingestions. On the Gold Coast, we’ve got a beautiful waterways and canal systems, and I understand why people want to enjoy the waterways, but it’d be nice if we could do it in a fashion that the water birds can enjoy their home, just as much as we’re enjoying it.

Shark nets have become quite a contentious issue, haven’t they?

Yes, I completely understand why Queensland Government has their stance on shark nets – the importance of them is to protect human life. There’s no denying that they prevent sharks coming to the populated swimming destinations. But there is better technology out there, such as drone activated buoys, where we get sent a signal when an animal gets caught on it, so we can be alerted to an animal in trouble and we can get out there a little bit quicker. These nets can also be completely replaced with repellent technology where we can prevent other species getting caught in the net. We understand where the authorities stand with it at the moment, why the nets are there. But at the same time, they need to be reviewed and they need to be looked at just so we don’t have the sheer numbers of other species getting caught up in those shark nets.

And I guess you’re dealing with the effects of it every day as well. It’s not just that you care, it’s that it directly impacts your everyday life.

That’s exactly right. And that’s where my opinion comes from is because it does affect my life. It influences my work days in the sense that it’s impacting on the animals whose numbers I’m trying to increase out there in the wild. But I’m not a family member that lost a loved one and I’m not in the human medicine world where they’ve had to deal with a shark attack victim. The people have been through that side of it would have their views and opinions as well. So we must a respect both sides of the story and when there are better options to achieve both outcomes, I think that’s when we really do need to review them.

What sort of community messaging do you think we’re lacking about the effects of fishing on wildlife and what message would you want to get out there about that?

The key message that I want to get across from a fishing perspective is to pick up after yourself. I understand fishermen gets snagged and there’s just no way of getting around that. But there’s no excuse for leaving fishing line just dangling in the rock or throwing it overboard. We just see far too many hook ingestions and fishing line entanglements, and we put it down to waste.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part of my job by far is releasing the wildlife. Getting an animal through care after it’s been rescued, and getting it through to rehabilitation to a point where it can be released, there’s just no better feeling. It’s so great to see them back out in their natural habitat.

What does the next 12 months look like for you?

It’s really hard to predict what we’re doing in the next 12 months. But I’m loving my job. It’s great to immerse myself into this marine mammal side of things and sinking my teeth into my passion for Australian native wildlife. So I’ll just keep going with that.

And as another passionate animal lover, I have to ask, what is your favourite animal to work with?

Oh, I got asked these question a heck of a lot and truly it changes every day! At the moment, I would have to say a Pelican because we got this incredibly cute patient in at the moment who has totally stolen my heart. But if you’d asked me a week ago, I would’ve said a koala because I had a beautiful encounter with one. And the beauty of the job is, the variety of enables me to have a variety of passions and love for different species. So it’s always changing.

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