Adventures of a Zoo Veterinarian

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 128
Podcast Interview with Dr. Gary West
Dr. Gary West with Ali the Aldabra tortoise.

Dr. Biology


This is Ask A Biologist a program about the living world, and I'm Dr Biology. If you joined us for the last episode, you know that we are visiting the Phoenix Zoo. Yep, the animals are around, so you might be hearing them in the background during this podcast. Our guest this time is Dr. Gary West, the Senior Vice President of Animal Health and Living Collections at the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, which is the group that runs the Phoenix Zoo. 


 Now, if you listened to our first episode of our Zoo series with Bert Castro, the President, and CEO of the Zoo, you might remember that there are around 3,000 animals that call the zoo their home. He also mentioned they get free health care. That means Gary has about 3,000 furry, feathery, and sometimes scaly patients because he is the veterinarian of the Phoenix Zoo. With all those animals, you can bet he's a busy person and that no two days are the same. Just what is it like to be a doctor for thousands of animal patients? 


 And we also learned last time there are over 300 animal species at the zoo. Can you imagine having that many different types of patients? Oh, and, to make things just a bit more challenging, none of them can talk, at least in the language humans understand, so they can't tell Dr West where it hurts or how they feel Now. That makes for a challenging job and one that I'm excited to learn more about. It's also a popular question for us at Ask A Biologist, especially the younger listeners that love animals and wonder how they can work with them. 


Many of them actually wanting to become veterinarians. So, let's get started. Welcome, Gary, and thank you for joining me on Ask A Biologist.



Oh, thank you so much for having me.

 Dr. Biology:


You know I was getting ready for the show, and I was writing down questions and then I wrote down another question, and another question. I probably could come up with a thousand and one questions, so we're probably not going to get to all of them, but we are going to get to some of the core things that I think are really interesting for a lot of our listeners. Just to let everybody know, we have a lot of questions that come in from people that want to know about how they can work with animals because they love animals, and, of course, we get a lot of veterinarian type of questions how do you become a veterinarian? And we haven't had one on the show. So, if you're going to do it, go big right? 



 So, here we are. You are a busy person with so many patients and that got me wondering, are you the only veterinarian on staff at the zoo? 



No, I'm not. There's a team of three veterinarians and three veterinary technicians, and so we all work together, cover the zoo 24 hours, seven days a week, and really help each other out. So, I have a great team over there. 

 Dr. Biology:


Right, and you mentioned the veterinarian technician. This is something that a lot of people may not have the time or the money to go and get a degree so that they can be a veterinarian, but there are other ways to help animals in the basically animal healthcare area. So, the technicians, what do they do at the zoo? 



 Well, probably my easiest analogy is really they are like nurses and they're really an integral part of our team. As a doctor I'm a little absent-minded, I forget things. They are really the glue that holds the medical center and the veterinary hospital together. So, they remember things that we forget. They remember the equipment. They're really good at the technical skills putting in intravenous catheters, collecting blood, preparing our lab samples, finding where we can get sometimes complicated medications for zoo animals. We might have to get things that a small animal, a dog, and cat veterinarian might not need to get. We get something for an elephant or a rattlesnake and so they are really integral in helping us find equipment or medications for those. Just really can't do our job without them. Often, they handle the animals and they are really good at collecting the samples. Just like you couldn't go to a hospital and be a hospitalized patient without a really great nursing team and nursing care and lab technicians and things like that at a human hospital. 

 Dr. Biology:


I am so glad you mentioned nurses. I agree, I am married to a nurse, a nurse that deals with cancer patients, so I am ever so indebted to all the nurses that are out there Now. Your nurses just like you, they've got to work with the animals, and I had to say that's probably one of the most challenging things. Having just household pets, how do you know when an animal isn't feeling well? That's the challenge. 



 That's a great question really brings in part of our other really key component to the team is the keepers, the curators, the animal managers. So, I say they are the first line of defense. They are incredibly dedicated individuals, typically have college degrees in biology or zoology, work with those animals on a day-to-day basis, for hours a day and for years at a time, and they really get to know the animals. So, as you mentioned, I can't go around the zoo and check on 3,000 animals every day. 


 The keepers can. They're feeding them, they're seeing normal bodily functions. Did they pee, did they poop, how are they feeling? How are they taking care of their babies maybe, and that kind of thing. And so, they’re the ones that really communicate to the veterinarians, just like you would as a pet owner. You know something's wrong with your dog or your cat. Your veterinarian might not know that, and so then you call your veterinarian and say there's just something not right here. He didn't come for his treats like he normally does. He's really quiet, he's not behaving normally. So, the keepers are really an essential part of that team at the zoo. 

 Dr. Biology:


 You brought up the fact that we know when we're at home, when our animals are a little bit off right. There's got to be different challenges, because of one thing you have so many different species and the other one is some species. Let's pick your primates, your monkeys, much easier to try to figure out when they're not feeling well versus. You mentioned rattlesnakes. How do you know when a rattlesnake isn't feeling well? 



 There's a lot of different things you’ve got to look at. So, a rattlesnake doesn't move around a lot. It may not eat every day but sometimes we see abnormal poop, fecal material. They may regurgitate a meal, vomit. The keepers weigh them on a regular basis. It's hard to just look at them and know sometimes if they've lost significant amounts of weight, if they're a smaller snake, so weights, body condition, did they eat a meal? When was the last meal? Are they? What I say is coiled tight and sort of had that musculature? That might scare you if you see them in the wild when they're coiled up, but that's what they should look like nice tone to them versus sort of laying abnormally. So, all of those sorts of things behavior, food consumption, body weights, and you know you bring up an interesting species there which I love reptiles. 


 But a huge challenge for us. Somebody can't just walk into the room with a rattlesnake and here you go, Dr West, like take a look at it. That snake's probably not gonna be too friendly to me and it's not gonna want me examining it, touching it, poking it, prodding it. So, that's where we use some specialized equipment. We have these clear plastic acrylic tubes. We have very experienced handlers. They're trained with venomous animals. 


 We have things on ground to mitigate risk, such as anti-venom and storage in case somebody gets bitten. We have a whole protocol with Banner [hospital] and the toxicologist at Banner sort of looking at what happens if somebody gets bit by a rattlesnake. All of these things to mitigate dangerous animal risk. But that animal will be gently guided with a pole into a clear plastic acrylic tube, so its head is covered. But then I can feel its tail, I can draw blood from its tail, I can examine it, feel its musculature and kind of goes back to seeing what's normal in that snake. So, I think you brought up a perfect species for a zoo veterinarian, which is a huge challenge, a safety risk, but we also have to provide care. So, there's just a lot of experience on the keeper side and the veterinary side that has to go into care for a snake. 

 Dr. Biology:


 So, that definitely is a challenge. The other challenge is scale right. You can have a really, really big dog at home, say. You could even have, I suppose, the people that have horses right? What about a rhino and an elephant? 



 Yep, that's sort of the other end of the spectrum there for challenges. We deal with the largest terrestrial land mammal. We have an Asian elephant, Indu, who's sweet and kind and gentle and really loves her keepers. We can do a lot of things through training and behavioral enrichment and really do a lot with her. But on the other side, if she does not want to do something or she's upset about something, it's a potentially very dangerous situation. 


 Luckily those animals are highly intelligent, and work well with the keepers. They're typically what I say are friendly animals, not particularly aggressive animals, and so the keepers can do a lot of things with them through training. For an example, Indu had a urinary tract infection. We could do a lot of the work up with her in a sort of a confined space, what we call an elephant chute, so she walks into it and we could do an ultrasound with her awake and that sort of thing. The keepers can draw blood, they can give injections. So, she's trained for all those sorts of things. 


 It's reinforced with a positive manner, usually food. That's the most positive thing for everybody, including myself. She does really well with that. We rarely would have to anesthetize her, or we wouldn't get in the same space with her. Typically, if she was awake, an elephant could accidentally hurt you just by spinning around or accidentally pushing you against a wall or a pole. You're talking about 8-to-9,000-pound animal, so I don't think she would necessarily do it in a malicious way, but she could accidentally really hurt somebody, sit on you, step on you, knock you over and really do some damage. 


 The rhinoceros another good example. We have a white rhinoceros in the Greater One Horned Asian rhinoceros at the zoo and we have had some recurrent inflammatory eye disease in one of our female rhinos and I would give a lot of credit to the keepers. They can have her come up station. She puts her head through two poles so we don't have to be right next to her. They can allow us to come up again. Positive reinforcement typically food she eats. We can look at her eyes while she has her head down eating. We can flush her eyes out, administer eyewitness and that sort of thing. So, a lot of times, through training in the facilities, we can work around them safely. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Wow, it just boggles my mind 300 different species. One day you're treating an elephant (thousands of pounds). The next day you're treating a bird in the aviary. And it brings up a question for me. You do have a staff of veterinarians. So, one of the interesting things there is do you specialize in different species? 



We don't. That's what's really great about wildlife medicine for me. I probably have a short attention span,  but I have a real interest in wildlife and I've been a veterinarian for I have to think now 28 years and I'm still super excited about it. I don't even think about the years, because we do get to work with such a wide variety of species and work with animals that are often rare and in danger. It takes some training, though. We have a program at the zoo where we actually train graduate veterinarians in zoological medicine. They come to us for a one-year internship, then they go on typically to do more training or get a job in zoo medicine. 


 So, related to that question, you go to veterinary school. You learn about domestic animals. There are more zoo and wildlife programs now kind of creeping in, but when I was in school in the 90s there really wasn't a whole lot. So, you really have to get some training after veterinary school. But what I tell people I don't want to oversimplify it because a lot of these animals are dangerous and they're different. But a rhinoceros is really like a horse as far as its gastrointestinal tract, its feet. A giraffe I always joke about is a cow with a long neck. It's a ruminant like a cow. It's got a four-chambered stomach. That sort of thing Sea lions we don't have at the zoo but I've worked with. 


To me, they're a lot like a dog with flippers. Really, anatomically they're like a dog. I mean they have some adaptations for diving and holding their breath and that sort of thing. Where we get and I say weird, but I say it in a complimentary manner where we get the weird things, is where we really have a lot to learn still and you have to kind of learn on the job or through training with other experienced veterinarians. And those animals are the reptiles, the birds, the stingrays, the fish, the sharks, those sorts of things, because it just really isn't a lot of that when you go to veterinary school. So, those are some of the big challenges. 

 Dr. Biology:


Right, and speaking of challenges, we spoke about this on the last episode and, unfortunately, Phoenix is still under an amazing heat wave. 




 Dr. Biology:


It's just been incredibly brutal for all animals, which we include humans, and we talked about it on the last show and Bert mentioned that the animals. One of the nice things is you give choice. They can decide whether they want to be out in the heat and there are places where they can get away from it, but it's still a lot of heat even if you are. As Bert mentioned, this is a zoo that specializes in animals that are used to warm climate areas. From your perspective, have some of the animals been struggling? 



Yeah, I mean, I definitely think so. People are struggling, the animals are going to struggle Again. We mitigate some of that through misters shading and we have a loud, arid desert species that live at the zoo. Should I specialize in that? And you know, through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums we have very good, scientifically published husbandry manuals talking about temperature parameters. So, a Sumatran tiger, yes, can't really tolerate 118, so we give it access to air-conditioned space. If it wants to go out in the shade or to the pond, it can. But you know, if you come out to the zoo in the afternoon, to be honest, you're probably not going to see a tiger, it's going to be indoors and that's its choice. Orangutans, we have temperature parameters. They're really not going to be out, although we do have indoor space and you've probably seen it where there's glass viewing, and you can see them inside. 


But yeah, you know, recently a species that kind of surprised me was our big male Masai giraffe Migu. You know, giraffes obviously are from Africa. They live in hot, dry, arid. They often stand right out in the direct sunlight when it's 100-plus degrees. We're not really sure why, but he did have some issues. He was getting dehydrated. We could tell that through, you know, collecting urine and sort of decreased urine output and decreased fecal output and he wasn't eating as well. Again, some of those things we talked about. And the keepers know that, like you know, he's not doing what he normally should do. And so, we got together as a team the veterinarians and the hoof stock manager and the hoof stock keepers and sort of talked about what we could do, because a big, huge, 12, 13-hundred-pound male giraffe is probably not going to let me do a whole lot awake and the risk of anesthetizing a giraffe is very, very high. It's not easy to anesthetize him. 


But kind of cutting to the story, sometimes you forget some of the simple things. So, I know from veterinary school a cow doesn't really want to drink water. That's over 80 degrees. So, we looked at water temperature. It was pretty warm. The other giraffes were drinking and maybe that put him off. So, we iced down his water, we put electrolytes, power-aid type things in his water and some sprinkled on his food. Each stayed inside quite a bit. It's more shaded, there's fans, there's misters, there's not air conditioning in that giraffe barn, which isn't really necessary. They're actually more cold-sensitive than heat-sensitive. But I think once he started getting some of those electrolytes, he started drinking more and then he started eating more and now he's sort of back to normal. But yeah, he was an example that kind of surprised me, but it happened. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Right, and it's just one of those things that a lot of times, back to humans, we don't always pay attention. Humans run into the same sort of thing where we're just not used to it for this length of time, and so, we might end up a little bit dehydrated. One of the things that I learned in the last episode was that zoos have a much bigger footprint in animal conservation outside of the zoo than I realized, and it was a pleasant surprise. I would say, in your role, are there specific conservation efforts you're involved with? 



 Well, certainly with all the animals that have a conservation need at the zoo we work with our conservation department. So, the Black-footed Ferret, which gets reintroduced back to the wild, the offspring from the zoo, the Chiricahua, leopard, frog and those sorts of species. I've also been involved for the last several years down in Paraguay, in Latin America, working with the Chacoan peccary and the Lowland Tapir. So, the Phoenix Zoo has really a lot of great conservation programs that they're involved with and that was one. We've been involved with the Chacoan peccary for many years and if folks don't know, it's sort of the giant peccary. It's related to our javelina, our collared peccary. Here in Arizona, it was thought to be extinct and then rediscovered about 1970. A biologist was in the Chacoan area of South America, which is in Paraguay, Bolivia and even down into Argentina. Really incredibly biodiverse, just a wonderful place. I just love it down there. There's just so many interesting species down there. But the Chacoan Peccary lives in that area. It's a lot like Arizona it's dry, it's arid, but those peccaries don't deal very well with human encroachment. They don't deal very well around people Like you'll see the collared peccaries in your neighborhood and running around here. The Chacoan peccaries just aren't that kind of an animal. They're listed as in danger now. They're very rare now. 


 The Phoenix Zoo was the first zoo actually to house that species in North America. Back in the 90s, we imported animals from Paraguay and now they're all throughout North American zoos and very successful breeding programs. I was asked because of our knowledge of working with them in a zoo, we can pass that on to our wild counterparts. Working with wild animals and working with biologists in those countries. I had quite a lot of experience working with the anesthesia of Chacoan peccaries how to immobilize them safely, wake them up and make sure everything's okay. I was invited down and we immobilized about a hundred of them for genetic analysis to look at their blood work, and their parameters and collect some anesthesia data and that sort of thing. Now we're placing radio collars on lowland tapers in the region actually wild animals and tracking their sort of movements in the areas. 


 Physiologically, anatomically, they're in the horse rhinoceros family. You may have not seen one, but if you look one up it's sort of a stout, 500-pound, solidly built animal. Some people say they're sort of look like a pig, but they're really more horse-like. They have a long sort of proboscis or nose that they kind of use to navigate the environment. They have three toes, so just sort of a large terrestrial mammal. They're an herbivore. 


We'd love to see if there's a habitat where Chacoan peccaries might be able to be released back to the wild when we work with the center down there, the only one in the world dedicated to the conservation of Chacoan peccaries, where they breed them in a managed care setting and then we're hoping to re-release them. So, I've been pretty excited about that. You know, in a zoo you want to do everything. I'd love to go work on conservation projects all the time everywhere, but you know I have a job to do. I have the zoo animals to take care of. So, I've learned as I've gotten older to try to concentrate my efforts and expertise maybe in a more limited area. So, the work on Paraguay has really sort of fulfilled that. I really love working with the folks down there and the animals down there and it's an incredible area but just like everywhere in the world, it's in danger from farming, development and deforestation and that sort of thing. So, there's certainly challenges down there. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Right, we actually also talked about some of the work that's being done with some jaguars down there and beyond the jaguars, some other animals dealing with animal corridors Lots of really great things going on with conservation outside of the zoo. Yes, a lot With the zoo being involved For this episode, I thought I would pull some of the questions that kids have asked, so we're going to call this kind of a lightning round right, we're going to do this fast. 



 Right, think fast, aren't we? 

 Dr. Biology:


I'll just start rattling off questions and see what we can do. Alright, what's your favorite animal to take care of, and why? 



 Gosh. You know, I knew you're gonna ask that and I don't want to cop out. As a zoo veterinarian, I have to work with a lot of animals and I always feel bad I'm gonna leave somebody out or keepers out with their animal. I've always been infatuated with reptiles and birds, but I was recently talking about maned wolves, met the zoo. They're also found in the Chaco region of South America where I do some work, and so and I like to highlight some of the lesser-known species. So, I'm gonna say this week it's the maned wolf. They call it a fox on stilts. So, it's a big red wolf. It's not really a fox, it's not really a wolf. It's actually 50% of its diet is like a fruit-vegetable type diet, so it's not a particularly dangerous carnivore. They smell kind of like a skunk. I kind of like their smell, though they have kind of a kind of a difference if you go by there in the morning. So, I'm gonna say the maned wolf. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Okay, so they're an omnivore if they're eating things? Yeah, exactly, yeah, great, yeah, it's great. All right, next one how do you give medicine to animals? Do they take it like we do? 



 No, I mean, they take it probably, maybe like a toddler if you can remember back, you know having kids. You might have to hide it in some juice. It might need to taste good. You might have to hide it in a treat or something like that. But worst case scenario, we sometimes have to pull out the dart gun. That's no fun for the animal and so kind of like if you have to go to the doctor to get a shot, get a vaccine. Animals might be trained for a shot but sometimes they aren't and we might have to actually pull out the dart gun, which is kind of like a projected Syringe into your arm or rear end. We hope they take it orally but you know you can't administer everything orally. Vaccines, most of them, are not oral, except for like the polio vaccine, and so sometimes we have to inject those. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Okay, have you ever had to rescue an animal from the wild and bring it to the zoo? 



 Well, we have several animals that have come from Rehabilitation facilities, or we've worked with Arizona game and fish. Some examples I think you talked about in your podcast with Burt, our CEO, about the bald eagles. They can't fly, they're injured, can be re-released to the wild so they came from rehabilitation facilities. Our entire group of collared peccaries, our javelinas on the Arizona Trail. Unfortunately, uh, probably a well-meaning person thought he or she was doing a good thing, but they were feeding this group of peccaries in their backyard. They became very habituated to people and then they can become dangerous because they'll kind of try to push you away from the food or come after you for food, and so game and fish said hey, can you please take a group of peccaries and it's three boys, three girls. So, you named them after the Brady bunch kids and we were able to take them all in and they're happy as can be at the zoo. So, we have several animals on the Arizona trail that are native Arizona species, that came from rehabilitation facilities. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Yeah. So, the next one, do animals ever get scared when you need to check on them or give them shots? 



 Yeah, that's probably the part of the job I don't like most of the animals we love, we care about, they don't really like us. They see us as bringing some sort of uncomfortable situation to them, particularly primates. You know, they're super intelligent. There's an orangutan at the zoo. I love her but I've had to treat her for many medical conditions over the years and she will come running and hitting the glass and spitting at me and does not realize I want to help her. But also, the prey species. 


 So, if you look at a lot of the hoofstock species again, which I love. You know, huffstock, big horn sheep, pronghorn, antelope, Nyala, giraffe, oryx , Arabian oryx, that sort of thing they have flight distances and what I mean by that is they don't want you to get too close. You might be a predator. And so, when we go to see them, observe them, try to give them medications, capture them they're often pacing, running, trying to get away. So, yeah, I would, I would say. Unfortunately, they are scared. It makes us feel bad, but we have to just remind ourselves we really are trying to help them, all right. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Have you ever been scared while taking care of an animal? 



 For sure. We, you know we work with a lot of Potentially dangerous animals. We have to think about all our protocols and our safety measures and have our group meetings and our medical Rounds and talk about what we're gonna do if this happens or that happens. Probably the thing that scares me most is I, you know, I don't want to make a mistake, I want a good outcome for the animal, and I don't want anything bad to happen to the animal. 


 But I do have a story from 25 years ago where at another zoo not the Phoenix Zoo a grizzly bear actually got loose on grounds, and I was terrified because this was a bear that had again, we went to go back to the rehabilitation rescue had been a nuisance bear at Yellowstone and she had been kind of on the Strike three list. We need to find her home. She's going after campers. So, she ended up at the zoo I worked at. So, I always in my mind I thought she's not scared of people, grizzly bear, very dangerous. Well, she ended up loose on zoo grounds on a Saturday morning. We had to dart her and put her back in the exhibit and so, yeah, that scared me but luckily everything went well. 

 Dr. Biology:


 All right, well, I'm gonna shift gears. Okay, that was great. Okay, that was kind of a lightning round which I haven't had guests do, so you did a great job. Okay, thank you. Let's shift to the last section, and this is where I never let my scientist leave without answering three questions. All right, we'll start with. When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist, and in this case, a veterinarian? 



 I always wanted to work with wildlife. So, as a kid my mom always sort of fostered that in me. We raised baby rabbits and squirrels. I had a duck for a while. She would encourage me by getting books on animals. Of course, probably a lot of people in my generation watched Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins and so those sort of nature shows back then and books really sort of got me interested in wildlife and so I knew I wanted to work with wild animals in some sort of capacity conservation and endangered species, helping wildlife. And then, you know, I got into college. I went to undergrad. I was actually an animal ecology biology major and undergrad. 


 I really didn't think about veterinary medicine when my high school counselor and when I talked to them a little bit about it they're like well, you have to go to college for eight years. And I thought, geez, there's no way I'm going to do that. I can't go to college for eight years. You know you're thinking about that as a 16, 17-year-old, not realizing you have your whole life ahead of you. So, I went to undergrad. I really loved my zoology, my animal ecology and sort of anatomy and physiology classes and I had a friend and he said you know, I'm going to go into veterinary medicine, like you can work with tigers and lions and bears and gorillas and zoo animals. I never really thought of that and I'm like, well, maybe that's sort of the way to work with wildlife. I had sort of planned to possibly, you know, get a master's degree or PhD if I was able to and study wildlife in the wild. You know, I imagined myself sitting like Jane Goodall, you know, in Africa observing animals and writing about them and sort of falling in love with all of that. 


 But then I got an opportunity to spend some time with a zoo veterinarian and I grew up in rural Iowa and I went to Iowa State University and there wasn't a major zoo near me. So, I traveled about three hours to a large zoo and the veterinarian there she was nice enough to. It's funny because now we get a lot of those requests and I'm kind of become the grumpy old vet where I like I don't have time for these young people. But I have to remember somebody did this for me and so she said come on over, Gary and like you can hang out with me for the day, because I'm like I'm thinking about this I don't know if I want to do this, but maybe, and I remember she anesthetized and mobilized a polar bear when I was there and I was just like star struck. This bear was so big, its feet were as big as my head and it could tell she was so happy, the most positive influence, and I felt almost like I was harassing her after that. Can I come back?


Can I do something else? Then she worked on a tiger one day and I was just, oh my gosh, this is what I got to do. Like you get to actually touch the animals. You're not in the field looking at them from hundreds of yards away. You get to touch them. You get to get blood samples, you get to safely handle them, wake them back up and possibly save them from a life-threatening illness. And so, I was so inspired by that. 


 I went back and I really started studying hard because, although I took my studies seriously, you have to take it up a notch if you're going to get into veterinary school and things like organic chemistry and physics and things that I may not have really loved before. I'm like I've got to do well on these courses if I want to do this, and so that's sort of my path. I think a lot of times nowadays, you know people have pets and they go to the veterinarian's office and that's sort of how they want to be a veterinarian and that's great. I didn't really have those role models. 


I grew up in rural Iowa. Most of it was large animal, food animal type animals. Growing up in the 70s I had pets, but you didn't really think about taking them to the vet and the vet really didn't do a whole lot with dogs, cats or guinea pigs or fish or that sort of thing and in rural Iowa. So, I didn't really have those kind of role models as a kid. As a veterinarian I really was more interested in wildlife, so it kind of took a little bit of a different path that way. 

 Dr. Biology:


 Well, I'm going to do the usual thing and I'm going to take it all away from you after all these years, right? Especially, you know, having to go through basically med school and all that work. If you weren't a veterinarian, if I took that away from you and you had to pick some other kind of career, what would you do or be? What would you like to do or be? 



 Yeah, that's. That's a great question. I am living a dream, I would have to admit, and so I'm super satisfied and happy with my career and you know, again, after 28 years, I love it, but if I didn't, I would just do something very calming and relaxing about being out in nature. So, if I worked at an, in a park, as a park guide, or if I could be a rock climber and teach people how to do that or something, I'd probably be interested in that. 


 As a, you know, 11, 12, 13-year-old, I made some trips to Canada fishing with my father and at that time I dreamed I want to be a fishing guide. I loved catching fish and that sort of thing, but it was being out in nature on a lake and hearing loons, seeing bears and moose in Canada, just something just so very relaxing about being out in nature, and I even have to remind myself of that now. You know I get removed from it and I need to sort of get back into it. So, I think it'd be something related to wildlife, to nature, you know, being out, exploring and that sort of thing, trying to make a living that way, which is tough to do Unless you're really, really good at something, or you're great on social media maybe, or something like that. It's tough to make a living that way. You know, I love to canoe and to kayak and all those sorts of things, so probably some sort of nature-based job, right?  

 Dr. Biology:


 Last question.




What advice would you have for a young scientist, a future veterinarian Perhaps, who wanted to follow your footsteps, so to speak? 



 Yeah, I always start off. I mean I want to be encouraging and I sometimes come across as discouraging Because it's difficult. You know a lot of people want to do it. I see why I'm doing it. I love it. I would worry even nowadays, like would I be able to get the job that I have now If I was sort of getting into it now Just because a lot of people want to do it? 


 You know, I think a lot of people over-focus on animal experience. Certainly, you want animal experience. You know how to take care of animals, sort of the ups and downs of that. I think veterinary medicine has incredible highs and incredible lows and so you have got to think about that. And I think you know what we see nowadays, some of that emotional toll that it takes on people you have to be prepared for too. So, not to be discouraging, but think about that. You know we get to hug and love animals and save animals and bring them back from life-threatening diseases. Sometimes we lose and that can be very, very sad. I think that even at this point in my life it's an emotional toll. You work day and night with an animal and you still lose to cancer or some bad disease and it's just. It just punches you in the gut. But you know other animals need you, you know your coworkers need you. So, you think you have to think about that, but also thinking about get good grades and stay in school, because I think people overemphasize the animal experience and that's the end goal. 


 But you've got to get through in college Organic chemistry, physics, physiology, maybe a difficult anatomy class, all of that hard science I say they sort of weed you out and it's kind of a natural weed out, but that is sort of what those classes do. You have to get high GPAs and I worked on a vet school admissions committee when I was a faculty member at a veterinary school and there's a lot of data that shows GPA and those hard science classes Directly correlate to success as a veterinary student. So, you know you think undergrad is hard. I did too. But veterinary school is a notch up. I say it's twice as hard, probably more. I mean you're taking 21, 23 credits a semester, a lot of hard science, a lot of material, 8 to 530 every day. You might have patient care. When you get your third or fourth year on top of that, I sound like somebody who's you know kind of discouraging, but I think you just have to be mentally prepared for that. 


I think a lot of people think they're going to jump right into Working with animals and that's again the end goal. But there's a lot of hard work that has to be done before that and really working hard on that science. Because I even thought when I was an organic chem Like oh my gosh, like why do I need this? Well, when you take pharmacology class and you're learning about drugs and pharmacokinetics of drugs and how they interact with the body, okay, now I understand why I need chemistry. I didn't really understand that before and that's a hard class. Pharmacology is hard. You're going to go to a medication to an animal. You're going to anesthetize an animal, maybe give it something for pain. You got to know how does that interact with other drugs? How does that interact with the kidneys, the liver, that sort of thing? So, the physiology, the pharmacology it's. 

 Dr. Biology:


 You know, there's a lot of science Right, and I would say it's a realistic outlook or a realistic perspective on how to get there. So, yes, I agree, those courses can be tough, but if you're persistent and you're passionate I guess the two P's persistent and passionate that will work well for you. Well, Gary, I want to thank you again for taking time out from your busy job with all the animals and to sit down and have a chat on Ask A Biologist. 



 Well, thank you, it was a lot of fun and I appreciate you having me. 

 Dr. Biology:


 You have been listening to Ask A Biologist, and my guest has been Dr. Gary West, the Senior Vice President of Animal Health and Living Collections at the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, which is the group that runs the Phoenix Zoo. It also means Gary is the doctor to many animals and many different kinds of animals. As we do with our other episodes, we'll include links to some of the content that you might want to follow up on, like how to go visit the zoo, or maybe you want to go to the Ask A Biologist section on how to become a biologist, because if you want to become a veterinarian, it's not uncommon to get a degree in biology first. The Ask A Biologist podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grassroots Studio Housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Now, obviously, we're not there today. 


We're actually at the Phoenix Zoo, but that's where we usually do the recordings. And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is, or you can just use your favorite search tool and enter the words ask a biologist. As always, I'm Dr. Biology and I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Adventures of a Zoo Veterinarian
  • Episode number: 128
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: August 11, 2023
  • Date accessed: March 4, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2023, August 11). Adventures of a Zoo Veterinarian (128) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. Ask A Biologist.

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Dr. Biology. "Adventures of a Zoo Veterinarian." Produced by Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. August 11, 2023. Podcast, MP3 audio.

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"Adventures of a Zoo Veterinarian." Ask A Biologist Podcast from Ask A Biologist, 11 August, 2023,

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