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For Cincinnati Zoo's vets, there's no 'typical' day

Caring for creatures from insects to elephants
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Posted at 7:01 AM, Mar 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-25 19:40:18-05

Imagine being a doctor taking care of everything from toothaches to emergency surgeries. Now imagine your patients weigh anywhere from 2 ounces to 2 tons. Welcome to the world of veterinary medicine at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

With between 1,500 to 2,000 animals from roughly 450 species to care for, Mark Campbell, the zoo’s director of animal health, explained there’s no such thing as a “typical” day. Before making their rounds, he said the veterinary staff meets in the morning to discuss their patients and what’s on the docket. Even with the best-laid plans, he said an unexpected radio call or message that an animal became ill overnight can derail everything.

“Then all those things have to get prioritized and reprioritized to get done,” he said. “The staff is really dedicated here; we have a lot of people who work hard. Keepers, everybody — it’s a really good group of people who work at this organization.”

Just as with humans, Campbell said keeping animals healthy hinges on practicing preventive medicine. He said they schedule routine wellness exams through the year for their patients, including physical exams, blood work, parasite checks and giving vaccinations. During a normal month, he said the staff performs about 40 checkups.

“We do everything from insects to elephants. That’s how diverse it is,” he said.

In addition to Campbell, the zoo employs two full-time veterinarians, Jenny Nollman and Greg Levens, as well as two full-time veterinary nurses. Zoo nutritionist Barbara Henry rounds out their team, Campbell said. While staff size may seem disproportionate to the number of patients, he said their hard-working group always finds a way to cover the facility seven days a week, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

“It’s a calling. We’re not making plastic spoons and forks here,” he said. “People are very passionate about it, they’re very dedicated to it and they truly believe in what the zoo’s doing here.”

Checking a tiger's teeth is all in a day's work for a Cincinnati Zoo veterinarian. (Photo provided/Cincinnati Zoo)

Campbell likes to refer to their staff as generalists with areas of expertise. When a case requires a specialist, he said both the veterinary and medical community rally in support. He said often physicians from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and other area hospitals offer their services, as do local veterinarians who specialize in such areas as equine medicine, ophthalmology, oncology, radiology and dentistry. Just last year, he said Ali the aardvark visited Children’s Hospital for an MRI and CT scan to determine the root cause of her ongoing dental issues.

“When it gets down to it, medicine is medicine — veterinary medicine, human medicine, dentistry — it’s medicine,” Campbell said. “We have a great relationship with the local docs in town. They don’t have to do any of the paper work, so all they have to do is just come over and be doctors, and they love that because they’re helping the zoo out.”

He recalled that in 1991, when UC first opened its MRI facility, the zoo received permission to administer tests to a tiger that was experiencing neurological problems. On a blistering cold Sunday in February, they found the facility filled with physicians and staff there to offer support. Campbell said they did express some concern about the tiger’s waking up and ripping apart their $8 million dollar machine.

“But it all worked out great,” he said. “We even had the chairman of the department of neuroradiology that was reading the study.”

Even simple preventive medicine can involve putting animals under stress. Campbell said the team always weighs the risks before performing any procedure. Because the zoo’s keepers use operant conditioning as part of the enrichment program, he said many animals no longer need to be anesthetized for testing. He said animals learn they have nothing to fear from routine exams and blood draws, and so they voluntarily cooperate.

“Operant conditioning, we’re very supportive of that and promote that as much as we can,” he said. “But it’s hard when you have that many animals. It takes time. I mean it takes hours of time to do that, but the keepers have done a wonderful job.”

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In the case of primates, Campbell explained the great apes voluntarily present themselves for cardiac ultrasounds. He said the tests are especially important because researchers have identified an unexplained increase of gorilla cardiac disease during the last 15 years, especially in the male gorilla population. While cardiac disease in humans can be traced to genetics, poor diet and lack of exercise, the anomaly in great apes — including bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans — remains a mystery.

“We’re not sure why, because they eat a great diet; they’re vegetarians,” he said. “So we’re trying to figure that out, and it’s hard to do because we don’t have the millions of dollars from NIH to do our research, so a lot of our stuff is just done as we can do it when we find money.”

Even with the best care, Campbell said, all animals die. While many times they know the cause of death, sometimes there seems to be no apparent reason. As part of their duties, he said they also perform postmortem examinations known as necropsies to help identify genetic predispositions to share with other zoos and to improve preventive care.

“I kind of look at us like this is a small town and we’re the small town doc,” he said. “So we see animals come into this world, and we take care of the animals during their lives and we see animals when they die, and we’re part of that whole thing.”

Growing up, Campbell said he recognized a passion for wildlife, wild places and science. Although his father wanted him to be a dentist, he said he pursued an different discipline because he never saw himself as much of a people person. After graduating from veterinary school at Michigan State, he landed internships at both the Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos in Chicago. Shortly after, he said an opportunity arose at the Cincinnati Zoo. That was 25 years ago.

“You get breaks sometime in life, you take advantage of them and you make the most of them, which is what I’ve kind of done,” he said. “I know I didn’t really want to do private practice, dogs and cats and that kind of stuff. I probably would go out of business in a small business — people could pay me in pies. I know I didn’t want to do that, and I’ve always liked wildlife and wild places, so zoo vet-wildlife medicine became my natural fit.”