Animal Instincts

For Betsy Stringer, being a veterinarian at the Denver Zoo is a serious matter, but also a heartwarming, fulfilling one.

elephant
Photo by Jon Rose

Imagine how hard it is to be a “people doc,” knowing all the bones in the human body, the diseases we’re prone to, plus all of our medications. Now imagine multiplying that knowledge by 400, and you get an idea of the day-to-day work of Denver Zoo veterinarian Betsy Stringer. As one of only about 250 board-certified zoo veterinarians in the world (four are at the Denver Zoo) and a diplomat of the American College of Zoological Medicine, she works with every animal in the zoo—from reptiles to big cats, fish to primates. It’s a lot. “We have to know a little bit about everything,” she says. “Ophthalmology, cardiology, surgery, dentistry…”

How did you become a zoo vet?
“I grew up in Minnesota and always knew I wanted to be a vet. In high school, I worked in a small-animal clinic, doing vaccines and watching surgeries, but I felt something was missing. In college, I started working as a zookeeper, and realized I could marry my two loves—conservation and medicine. After vet school, I did five years of postgraduate training to specialize in zoo medicine—a two-year internship at the Indianapolis Zoo and a three-year zoo medicine residency in North Carolina—before taking a massive board exam on all those species you don’t even learn about in vet school, from sharks to gorillas—everything except dogs, cats, and horses.”

With so many different species to deal with, how do you know how to treat, say, an alligator toothache?
“Every animal is unique, with its own anatomy, physiology, behavior, and nutrition. And most animals are stoic; they don’t tell us they’re sick until they are very, very sick. A lot of the time, we are being innovative, thinking outside the box, using what we know about domestic animals and human medicine and applying it to zoo animals. We collaborate with other zoos across the country and try to publish as much as we can. We are often the first to try something—that’s what I love about this job.”

zookeeper
Photo by Jon Rose

Describe a typical day.
“I don’t really have one! Some days I’m doing hospital procedures, usually an anesthetic exam looking at a sick animal, or a preventative wellness exam. And I have days when I am out on the grounds of the zoo, checking on animals that are my primary cases, like Groucho (the elephant), who has an abscess on his right rear knee and a sore on his face.”

Do you have a favorite species?
“I love the elephants. They are so smart, and really have personalities.”

Is the job as great as you’d hoped?
“I absolutely love it. I feel privileged every day to work with all these animals and feel like I am helping them. And we’re building a new zoo hospital that will open next summer, with viewing areas so the public can see what we do.”