Zoo Veterinarian Fun Facts

by Clayton Browne

The job of a zoo veterinarian has been highly glamorized for generations by positive media coverage of the profession. Zoo vets undeniably receive emotional and intellectual rewards from their job, but they earn those rewards with many long hours and a great deal of hard work. The broad job description of a zookeeper virtually guarantees variety on the job and a collection of interesting stories to tell the grandchildren.

Force-Feeding a 19-foot Python

According to "Wild Things: Untold Tales From the First Century of the Saint Louis Zoo", Marlon Perkins, of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom fame, was the curator of reptiles at the St. Louis Zoo in the 1930s, and he noticed that a 19-foot python named Blondie was losing weight because she was a finicky eater. He decided the only workable solution was to force-feed the snake, so he and eight other zookeepers began to force-feed Blondie a mixture of ground rabbit and horse meat every few days. Blondie's feeding became a popular public spectacle in St. Louis, and she eventually regained her health. Marlon Perkins was promoted to zoo director in 1938, his first big step in a world-class zookeeping career.


In a 2013 interview with Dr. Carlos Sanchez, a staff vet working at the National Zoo, he indicated that cheetahs are particularly interesting and challenging animals to work with. They are anatomically unique, and several diseases and conditions are only found in cheetahs. Dr. Sanchez is working with the University of California at Davis on a long-term study of cheetahs. The National Zoo also has a special program, working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, which pays villagers to capture rather than kill the cheetahs that prey on their goats.

World's Largest Komodo Dragon

The largest known specimen of a Komodo dragon at the time, over 10 feet long and weighing 365 pounds, resided at the St. Louis Zoo for around a week in 1933. The massive male monitor lizard was offered for sale to the zoo, and housed in a cage close to the lion exhibit for a week. However, zoo vets determined the animal was clearly in poor health, so the zoo decided against buying it and the owner reclaimed it. The lizard died shortly thereafter, and it was mounted for display in the reptile house. The mounted lizard was sent to the Chicago World's Fair in late 1933, and eventually ended up at the Museum of Science and Natural History in Riverside, California.

Most Zoo Vets Live Close to Zoos

Although it is not always an official part of the job description, according to Dr. Sanchez, zoo vets typically live close to the zoo where they work. Zoo vets are often on call, and need to be able to get to the zoo quickly for medical emergencies. Zoo animals also escape regularly, and vets need to be nearby to assist with capture and tend to any escape or capture-related injuries or trauma.

Identifying West Nile Virus

Tracy McNamara, the chief veterinary pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, was the first to identify West Nile Virus in the U.S. When several birds died over Labor Day weekend in 1999, Dr. McNamara knew she had a serious problem on her hands. Several humans had also become sick elsewhere in New York City, initially misdiagnosed as having St. Louis encephalitis. However, Dr. McNamara knew birds were not susceptible to St. Louis encephalitis, so she kept looking for another culprit. Working with the Centers for Disease Control, she eventually determined that the pathogen was the West Nile virus, a virus that had never been seen before in North or South America.

About the Author

Clayton Browne has been writing professionally since 1994. He has written and edited everything from science fiction to semiconductor patents to dissertations in linguistics, having worked for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Steck-Vaughn and The Psychological Corp. Browne has a Master of Science in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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