Tony Cholerton

Robovacc – vaccination in the 21st century

ZSL - London Zoo - 20th Jan, 2017


At ZSL London Zoo, a young female tiger, Cinta, presented them with a problem that they were able to deal with in a unique way using a combination of vaccination know-how and modern technology.

Cinta was born to Melati, a strong-minded tiger who took it upon herself to keep the cubs outside for long periods at a time. Whilst this was good in terms of acquainting her young to their outdoor surroundings, it had the down side of setting back the zoo's training programme. Other factors also limited the amount of time that they were able to spend with the tigers, such as the building of a new exhibit nearby.

Despite these challenges, they were able to train all their tigers to come inside during morning times and all were comfortable moving on to their training board.

However, Cinta would only move on to the board after the keepers had vacated the vicinity. This presented a real problem because her annual vaccination was due and the zoo's staff were running out of ideas as they needed to be there if they were to vaccinate her in the traditional way.

The keepers looked at the options that were available and considered each one in turn. Firstly, darting Cinta, was arguably the easiest option but the downside of this would be that it could potentially have a negative impact on the training of the rest of the tigers. Whilst hand injection could have been an option had Cinta’s training been advanced enough, they knew she was not ready for this. Finally, remote vaccination was considered as an alternative option and they decided to give it a try - it would be difficult but it would ultimately solve their problem.  

Cinta’s position on the board was good enough for their senior keeper, Tony Cholerton, to believe there was potential for vaccinating her remotely. In the past, Tony had been a model aeroplane enthusiast and for a few years he was also motorbike mechanic, so ultimately he felt he had some useful skills and technology at home he could use. So began the development of  Robovacc.

How does it work?
By using a wireless video camera Tony was able to send live footage to a tablet which allowed him to monitor Cinta and operate Robovacc remotely using a radio control system. This meant that all he had to do was work on getting Cinta into exactly the right position so he could vaccinate her from outside the building.

Whilst the whole thing sounded relatively straight forward, Tony understandably had to get permission to do this work from senior management at ZSL, the curator and London Zoo's veterinary team. Over the years, Tony had built up a good reputation for solving some difficult problems so he was able to talk them into letting him try and started to develop some working prototypes. The first was made of wood and various other bits and pieces but essentially it demonstrated that his idea was a feasible one. The second prototype was good enough to demonstrate to the vets the idea was sound and they gave their approval to go ahead with the project. Finally, Robovacc 3 was born and Tony and his team well were succesfully able to vaccinate Cinta without having to tranquilise her first.

Following the success of Robovacc, Tony is now working on Autovacc, an updated version which should allow the ZSL team to vaccinate animals outside in their enclosures. If successfully they hope that this new technology will pave the way for remotely vaccinating animals in the wild.

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