That is because Dr. Ryan Colburn, DVM and veterinary technician Heather Teater strive to keep every mammal, fish and bird at the zoo healthy. As with humans, residents of the zoo stay healthy through diet, exercise, preventative care and surgery if necessary.
Dr. Colburn plays many roles as the zoo’s veterinarian. He is the general practitioner, performing routine care such as vaccinations, spaying and neutering. As the dentist he cleans and extracts teeth that become infected.
When a penguin swallows a coin, he is the radiologist who takes the x-ray to find it. He is also the surgeon who relieves the swelling in a fish’s eye. As the aesthetician, he has a blow dart tranquilizer and knows how to use it.
Every day is different.
The profession of a zoo veterinarian began in 1829 at the London Zoo. In 1900, the United States hired its first zoo veterinarian, but it was slow going for that line of work with only five full time zoo vets in 1953. Today, there are over one thousand zoo veterinarians in the US.
The demands of a zoo veterinarian continue with non-clinical duties as well. Dr. Colburn has input on angels such as the exhibit design, policy development, protecting human health at the zoo, outreach, education, research and regulatory compliance.
Additionally, the quarantine program which allows animals to come and go from the zoo is quite intense. Incoming animals are quarantined from 30 – 90 days.
Upon arrival, animals are examined visually and physically. They are screened for parasites, have bloodwork performed and diagnostic imaging may also take place. A similar set of tests are run when animals leave the John Ball Zoo. All of these screenings add up to 800 – 1000 fecal exams per year.
The zoo has an animal hospital where most of the exams and procedures take place. For larger animals like the 700 pound grizzly bear, Dr. Colburn will make a house call. Since his patients come in all shapes and sizes, he has a number of methods used to perform examinations and surgeries. Snakes, birds and babies are typically restrained instead of anesthetized for exams. Fast moving animals like otters are put into a cage while the sloth prefers a bucket.
When the lion began having seizures, the zoo partnered with Michigan State University where an MRI was performed. When it was determined that the lion was epileptic, an anti-seizure medicine was prescribed. The lion takes his meds twice a day and has been seizure free.
Dr. Colburn emphasized the need for partnerships when caring for such a varied group of animals. John Ball Zoo partners with Michigan State University, Eastown Veterinary and Blue Pearl. Partnerships are essential in providing the best care.
A Day in the Life of a Zoo Veterinarian was a special event put on by the Grand Rapids Public Library in conjunction with the GR Reads summer adult reading book list. If you want to take a glimpse into the life of a veterinarian, two books were suggested, Tell Me Where it Hurts by Nick Trout and The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes by Lucy H. Spelman. For additional library events please go to the Grand Rapids Public Library’s web site.