veterinary services


Assisting Baby Animals

Kim bottle-feeds a fossa pup.

Kim bottle-feeds a fossa pup.

Many San Diego Zoo visitors, especially our beloved members, are familiar with the building once known as the Children’s Zoo Nursery. Since its construction in 1981, the nursery was often full of a variety of baby animals being raised by caretakers called nursery attendants. Some of the babies stayed in the nursery well past weaning age before returning to their family group. As a consequence, those impressionable youngsters missed out on important life lessons they should have been learning from their own kind.

Over the past 20 years, the focus of neonatal care has evolved. Recently, the nursery staff adopted a new name to reflect the evolution of our hand-rearing practices and protocols: the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU.) The NACU is staffed by five dedicated keepers who collectively hold over 110 years of hand-rearing experience, and we have learned to expect the unexpected. Last-minute changes to daily schedules or work load are not unusual. We may be required to help administer intense medical care at a moment’s notice or work around the clock to care for a sick baby. Our goal is to assist in the care and rearing of baby animals that would otherwise not survive without human intervention.

Becky bonds with a camel calf.

Becky bonds with a camel calf.

As a subdivision of the Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department, we work closely with the veterinarians and the nutritionists to provide necessary medical and nutritional support. We then depend on the baby’s own natal group to impart behavioral and social skills. Getting this done takes a lot of planning, foresight, patience, flexibility, and, most importantly, teamwork. Together we hope to raise a physically, mentally, and socially sound individual.

A lot of work goes into assisted care. It all starts when a neonate is found sick, injured, or abandoned. The keepers transport the animal to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for an exam by a veterinarian. The baby may be treated for a variety of conditions including dehydration, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and/or infection. It may take several hours before the struggling baby is deemed stable enough to eat. After that, the NACU keepers are called upon to offer the first bottle of formula.

Mary Dural helps a cheetah cub.

Mary Dural helps a cheetah cub.

Our expert nutritionists choose formula ingredients that match the mother’s milk as closely as possible. The variety of formulas is impressive. Each one is designed to meet an animal’s individual nutritional needs. Once the correct formula is mixed, the appropriate bottle and nipple must be selected. Even with a suitable formula and nipple, encouraging animal babies to nurse from a bottle is not always easy. These babies are often stressed, uncomfortable, and obviously in an unnatural setting. We have to be gentle and patient, sometimes working with a baby for hours or even days before it is willing to nurse. As soon as an animal is nursing reliably and is medically stable, we begin taking important steps toward returning it to its family.

Janet Hawes feeds a bonobo baby in his exhibit.

Janet Hawes feeds a bonobo baby in his exhibit.

Typically, the first step of an introduction is allowing visual access between the baby and the adults through a screen or fence. The point at which we move on to the next step depends largely on the family’s response to the baby. Several factors can hinder the process: an adult animal may be aggressive, the baby might get sick, or the weather may prompt a sudden housing change. We may have to delay or modify a plan numerous times before moving on to the next step. Each introduction is a learning process, and flexibility is extremely important. Regardless of any temporary setbacks, the baby still has the opportunity to assimilate species-specific information from its family such as odors, vocalizations, behavior, and food manipulation.

While caring for the babies living with their families, the NACU keepers make multiple trips around the Zoo. On any given day, you may see our NACU golf cart driving up and down the canyons packed with bottles labeled “Speke’s Gazelle,” Steenbok,” or “Gorilla.” In addition to delivering meals on wheels, we monitor growth rates, design weaning schedules, and adjust bottle amounts as needed. Once a baby is weaned from milk, our involvement comes to an end. It is up to the youngster’s family to continue the social and behavioral education, and the area keeper maintains a watchful eye on the little one’s progress.

Jo MIlls provides a welcome scritch to a XXX calf.

Jo Mills provides a welcome scritch to a reindeer calf.

Early introductions encourage the development of relationships that bolster a baby’s confidence. A confident, well-adjusted baby has a better chance to lead a happy, productive life. Adult animals involved in successful introductions play a key role. We rely on them to teach the valuable social lessons we cannot teach. Sometimes social lessons are gentle and gradual, while others might involve a quick chase around an exhibit to teach a kid the social order of things. Eventually, the dust settles and family life returns to normal.

Every neonate needing assistance is special, and it is a privilege to work with them. Some cases leave us energy-depleted, but the joy of working in the NACU is seeing a neonate reunited with its family and thriving. Our greatest reward is having played a small part in making this happen.

Becky Kier and Kim Weibel are senior keepers at the San Diego Zoo. Read Becky’s previous post, Motherhood: What If…? Read Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Boris Steps Out.


Veterinarians Don’t Just Operate, They Educate!

Yes, veterinarians even examine panda cubs!

Yes, veterinarians even examine panda cubs!

For veterinarians at San Diego Zoo Global, in addition to caring for the animals in our collection, one of the most important things they do is share their vast knowledge and expertise with aspiring veterinary students at the university level. Until one has actually observed or practiced in a zoo veterinary hospital, it is impossible to fully understand the amount of discipline needed and the challenges faced by veterinarians and support staff. The clinical veterinary medicine and veterinary pathology externship programs at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories provide just such an opportunity to a select group of students each year.

In 2003, our veterinarians and pathologists collaborated to create an externship program, and since then it has grown exponentially. With more than 30 accredited veterinary schools in the United States, we have collectively hosted over 200 students from the US as well as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, India, Thailand, and China (just to name a few!). Working with such a diverse group of students also helps us, as we gain knowledge of veterinary practices in other countries. Since we often send and receive animals to and from zoos worldwide, this proves very beneficial throughout the animal shipment process.

As with specialties in human medicine such as cardiology or orthopedics, zoo veterinary medicine is a specialty where focused training and education is required. During and even after graduation, volunteering to participate in as many observational opportunities as possible enhances students’ ability to learn the many different aspects of the profession in the clinical setting. Students should strive to observe different practice areas in veterinary medicine such as small animal, large animal, equine, zoo and exotic, pathology, research, or industrial. This demonstrates to selection committees that a student has researched the profession and holds a genuine interest in pursuing a career in the field of zoo and exotic animal medicine.

Once a veterinary student has chosen zoo medicine as a field of interest, applying for and participating in an externship rotation is an important step toward success. Most university career counseling offices have information regarding externships, and there are numerous externship opportunities listed on the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians website as well, including our facilities. Each program listing contains specific information needed for applying to select institutions. Most programs accept applications at least a year in advance, sometimes two, so it is important to begin identifying potential programs as a college freshman or sophomore.

Our veterinary student externs must be in their fourth or senior year during their rotations. This ensures they have enough experience and education to receive the greatest benefit while working in our practice. Once students graduate and obtain their degree in veterinary medicine and a license to practice, many will apply for the University of California, Davis, Residency, which includes one year each at three different zoological institutions: Sacramento Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The residency program also partners with SeaWorld San Diego and offers residents an eight-week opportunity to work in aquatic veterinary medicine.

While it takes a great deal of initiative, discipline, leadership skills, and patience, working as a veterinarian in a zoo setting is also extremely rewarding. For those with sincere passion for conservation and caring for the Earth’s creatures, working as a zoo veterinarian is not just a living but truly a way of life. It brings the staff of our veterinary services and pathology departments and San Diego Zoo Global as a whole great satisfaction knowing that the years of experience we share will be translated through the work of future generations of zoo veterinarians.

For information regarding SDZG veterinary externships

For information regarding the UC Davis Residency program:
And select the following Program Descriptions:
• Zoo and Wildlife Pathology
• Zoological Medicine

Valerie Stoddard is a senior administrative assistant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Serenade.


Zoo Hospital: A Panda Patient

Gao Gao

Hey, Hospital Keepers!  Guess who’s coming to spend the night?

Recently, we had a special overnight guest at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Gao Gao, one of our giant Pandas, took a routine “trip to the dentist,” and then had a sleepover with us. This visit involved coordination and communication between many parties: panda keepers, hospital staff, security officers, and construction crews.

Construction crews? Yep. Panda Canyon is going through quite the transformation. The Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department was instrumental in facilitating completion of a major phase in the Panda Trek project. By allowing Gao Gao to remain at the hospital following his scheduled procedure, panda keepers were able to use remote holding areas in the Giant Panda Research Station to house the remaining pandas as far away as possible from the impact of the construction activities.

To safely transport him to the hospital, Gao was injected with an anaesthetic while resting comfortably in his bedroom. Once he was sound asleep, Security Department staff cleared the way, and Gao was whizzed up the hill to the hospital. During a routine exam to assess his overall dental health, Gao received a full dental exam and cleaning. But when an animal is on the table, especially a panda, everything is checked. Head to toe, or in his case, nose to tail! These exams provide great opportunities to follow up on health conditions and to monitor changes that might have popped up over time. Measurements were recorded; radiographs were taken; eyes, ears, and other things were investigated; and nails were buffed…really!

Gao Gao’s keepers came up during his exam to check on the patient, of course, but more importantly to bring up some familiar items and set up his “home away from home.” During his short stay at the hospital, Gao had one inside room and one outside room, along with a tunnel leading to his transport crate. Once his exam was over and our sleepy VIP (Very Important Panda) was awake enough and ready to investigate his overnight accommodations, I gave him access to leave his crate and explore his new space.

Would the red carpet treatment meet his standards? Would he shift back in to his transport crate so he could go home tomorrow? Would he be comfortable enough to take his medicated biscuits and other treats from me? Would he settle in well enough to eat his dinner and get a good night’s sleep? I am happy to answer with a resounding YES to all the above.

Upon release Gao didn’t do too much exploring; he just walked out of his crate like a pro, down the tunnel, took one slow, sauntering lap around the outdoor room, glancing at and smelling things half-heartedly before entering the indoor room, turning around and plopping down in the doorway with his head resting on the threshold. Panda keepers would call to check in, and I’d report that other than “pouting” a little bit, Gao was doing just fine.

Our “house guest” was very well-behaved considering the eventful day he had and the crowd of admirers he drew into the hospital compound. “Panda” was whispered more than once, and I was reminded of the spell that was cast over me when I worked with these magical creatures years ago as a keeper. Maybe it was nostalgia on my part, or maybe he did remember me a little, or maybe he is just a really well-trained panda, but Gao Gao got up and came right over when I called him and was content to sit in his crate and let me hand-feed him.

Once dinner was over, and I started closing up shop, Gao knew it was time to go to bed. He slowly made his way back to his bedroom, curled up in his big pile of shavings and hay, and went to sleep. The next morning, Gao peeked his head out when I greeted him and was soon “reminding” me that he hadn’t had his breakfast yet. “Excuse me, lady. What kind of establishment is this?” I’ll have you know that we start our day at 6:30 a.m., not the usual 6 a.m. of his keepers, so according to him we were already behind schedule! Please forgive us, Mr. Panda, sir.

After he had eaten his breakfast, and once it was confirmed that the construction was done, Gao was called in to his crate and rewarded with some treats and love from his keepers. The crate doors were closed, and after everything was secured we wheeled him onto the back of a truck. Gao knew it was time to head home; he was ready and waiting patiently. But as the truck was pulling away, Gao was looking out the back watching us wave at him. As he rounded the corner to go down the hill and back to his home, Gao moved his head closer to the bars as if to say to his keepers, “Home, James” and to us “Thanks for your Hospital-ity!”

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: Eat Your Food.


Koalapalooza: Vets Share, Too!

I hope you were able to visit the San Diego Zoo January 16 through 19. If not, boy did you miss a good time! It was the Zoo’s first Discovery Days celebrating koalas with Koalapalooza (see blog, Koalapalooza: A Joey Is Named). Discovery Days events are a great new way for people to learn more about a targeted species.

During these times, keepers and researchers will share information about the species being featured and show some of the things we are doing to help save them and their habitats. And keepers from all around the Zoo share information about some of the animals they work with during an extended All About Enrichment weekend. Discovery Days are also a great time for the public to learn what they can do to help wildlife.

Horticulture staff explained the differences between eucalyptus species, the mainstay of a koala's diet.

Horticulture staff explained the differences between eucalyptus species, the mainstay of a koala's diet.

During these four days, it really isn’t just keepers and researchers sharing information, it’s a variety of departments; there are booths from horticulture, the Wild Animal Park, education, development, and of course my favorite, collection health.

During Koalapalooza, the Collection Health Department, which consists of veterinary services, nutrition, and wildlife disease laboratories, participated by having a booth where guests could speak with veterinarians, vet technicians, hospital keepers, nutritionists, and hospital administration. We had posters and information describing what we do, medical procedures playing on the computer and TV, digital images of some of the medical cases from the Zoo, plush animal bandaging, a vet truck demo, and remote drug delivery presentations.

A Zoo vet shows some of the equipment found on the specially equipped vet truck to Zoo visitors during Koalapalooza.

A Zoo vet shows some of the equipment found on the specially equipped vet truck to Zoo visitors during Koalapalooza.

Yvette Kemp is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Read Yvette’s previous blog, Deiriai the Swamp Monkey