Tuesday, July 5, 2016

This Doctor's Office is a Real Zoo: Veterinarian at Virginia Zoo Discusses Work

By Linda Lamm English


"Before Dr. Amanda Guthrie was hired as the Virginia Zoo's first full-time veterinarian almost five years ago, part-time vets treated the animals when they were sick.

Guthrie treats them when they are well, too.

An animal health has improved because of the proactive approach, she said while at her office on the zoo's Animal Wellness Campus.

Of course, she's not the only one tending to the hundreds of exotic animals spread across 53 acres of exhibits and gardens on Granby Street.

"We all have different roles in keeping the animals healthy," she said.

Zookeepers are on the front line. They feed and care for the animals and are the first to notice when one is lethargic or sick, or if a newborn is rejected by its mother.

The Decision Team, made up of the zoo's director and assistant director; the curator, who manages the zookeepers; and Guthrie resolves serious issues, such as when to euthanize an animal.


The veterinary staff consists of Guthrie, who previously worked at the zoo in Boise, Idaho, and two technicians. At least one of the three is on-site every day of the year. If a patient can't be brought to them, they can make a house call on a golf cart equipped with medical basics and a dart box.

Long hours are sometimes required, such as when twin tiger cubs were born earlier this year. They were not being nurtured by their mother, so the zoo vet's team bottle-fed them in shifts day and night until they were weaned.

When Guthrie tells people that she works at the zoo, they often comment on animals being held in captivity. "Oh, man, I feel sorry for those animals," they tell her. They shouldn't, she said. Most of them live two or three times longer than in the wild.

This means that the zoo provides a fair amount of geriatric care for conditions such as arthritis, cancer and heart and kidney failure. It calls for compassion - and sometimes a discussion by the Decision Team.


Guthrie, 36, believes one of the things that contributes to longevity is the attention paid to what the animals eat. They all have special diets - and special care goes into getting meals ready.

Fruit and vegetables are prepared separately from meat and fish to prevent cross-contamination. Walk-in freezers and coolers store a variety of edibles. A pantry has shelves of tortoise chow, mealworms and monkey biscuits, as well as canned food for marmosets and bugs for birds.

Gardeners also prune vegetation, which will be breakfast, lunch or dinner for some of the animals.

"We don't waste anything," Guthrie said.


When animals arrive or depart, a quarantine area is set up, such as in the case of a recent swap of birds with a zoo in Singapore. The protocols guard against the risk of introducing infection or disease.

Guthrie often uses outside resources, such as a veterinary dentist called in for a moon bear named Chai, who needed a root canal. "We are fortunate to live in an area with practitioners of such specialized machine," she said.

Guthrie and the others have great affection for the animals in their care. For example, the tiger cubs softly snort a greeting whenever they see Guthrie near their habitat.

"But, we must remember that they are not our pets. It's hard, because we do love them."'

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