A Conversation with Dr. Heather Robertson, Director of Veterinary Service at the Nashville Zoo

One of the youngest major zoos in the nation, the Nashville Zoo is on the rise with four major exhibits opening this year and large expansions coming up in the next decade. With more animals, the Zoo needs a larger veterinary facility and staff. That’s why they are breaking ground this year for the new animal hospital which will greatly improve the Nashville Zoo’s ability to provide top-notch medical care for a variety of exotic animals. Dr. Heather Robertson is the Director of Veterinary Service at the Zoo and she is determined to make their veterinary program even better. Here is her story.

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In 2001, Robertson began her career as a keeper at the Nashville Zoo. “I took care of all the birds- flamingos, golden eagles, bald eagles, pelicans and quite a few others,” she recalled. After leaving the zoo and going to veterinary school, Robertson was hired back as a full-time veterinarian associate at the Zoo in 2010. In 2012, she was promoted to head veterinarian. “Today I worked on a tiny 100 gram animal, then vaccinated the zebras, and then over to a baby binturong,” Robertson said of her daily routine. “It’s a challenge to juggle all the different species and manage the clinic and staff.”

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“First and foremost we do preventative healthcare,” Robertson stated. “Whether it’s dental health, general physical health or vaccines. Dr. Margarita Woc Colburn (our associate veterinarian) and myself determine how often we need to give the animals full physical exams and vaccines. We get the keepers to train animals for injections so we don’t have to anesthetize them. We also are here for any emergencies or health scares that arise. We ensure we have at least one veterinarian here seven days a week.”

@ Nashville Zoo

The Nashville Zoo is medium sized when it come to zoo veterinary programs. “We have six people who work in the hospital,” Robertson explained. “We have two full-time veterinarians while some smaller zoos might only have one on call. On the other hand, some very large zoos have residency programs and much larger staffs. Right now we’re in the middle but when we expand the hospital we’re going to expand the staff too.”

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A big part of the need for larger facilities and staff is that the Zoo is progressively getting a larger collection. This year, the Nashville Zoo has welcomed white rhinoceroses, spider monkeys, Andean bears and Sumatran tigers into its collection and will be adding elephants, lions, cheetahs, hippos, antelope, gorillas and more in upcoming year. “Our current hospital was built in 1988 before it was even the Nashville Zoo (a wildlife center was located on the property) and it was never built to house large mammals,” Robertson elaborated. “You can’t bring anything larger than a tiger into the current hospital. In this new space, primates, large carnivores and hoofstock will all have their our ICU room in the new hospital. Once it opens, we will be able to take anything up to the size of an ostrich or bison into the hospital.”

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For some animals, it will still not be possible to bring them to the hospital. “For rhinos and giraffes, you can’t do that,” Robertson remarked. “We just got the new rhinos and the vet staff helped design the rhino restraint device in the barn. This makes it possible to do samples and procedures on them in their own building. We were able to help coordinate what we needed for their healthcare. We did the same thing in the giraffe barn. We have a chute system in there, which allows us to restrain the giraffes gently while we do procedures. It’s much safer for both the animals and zoo staff.”

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Even for the animals who are able to be transported to the hospital, the Nashville Zoo considers veterinary care in the design of every habitat. “We take the medical, behavioral and husbandry considerations of every animal into consideration when building our exhibits,” Robertson said. “For instance, we had a say in the new spider monkey habitat that opened this spring. We have a small chute where the monkeys are being trained to use blood collection sleeves and allow voluntary injections. Since we’re such a young zoo we don’t’ have to retrofit anything. Also, we knew we wanted an Andean bear breeding program so we came up with ultrasound ports in their habitat. We want to be able to get weights on them to keep tabs on their body condition. We have a scale in the shifting area. We also have a space for them to be sedated if needed. Our director and carnivore team decided to make separate dens for the female and male bears to give the female a quiet space to raise her cubs.”

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@ Nashville Zoo

Opening this fall will be the Nashville Zoo’s new Sumatran tiger habitat. “It’s going to be really nice,” Robertson commented. “In the old facility, we had a lot of limitations and all we could do was voluntary injections. The new facility will have much better heating/cooling elements, more platforms for support and a training wall where guests can see the tigers being trained. One of those behaviors we train for is blood collection from the tail while they’re awake. We won’t have to do anesthesia, which is very nice. The new exhibit will be much better from a medical care perspective.”

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Portions of the new animal hospital will be visible to the general public. This was inspired by similar “on show” hospitals at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Busch gardens. “Visitors will be able to see into the surgery rooms and there’ll be video feed from the surgical cameras during procedures. They’ll also be able to see baby animals being hand-raised in the nursery. We’ll also have off show ICU areas for hospitalized patients which will have padded stalls where we can do safe anesthesic inductions and put them onto mobile surgery tables. We’ll have a built-in scale for large animals as well as a larger pharmacy, laboratory and offices which are much needed. There will be outdoor areas for the patients as well.”

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The keeper staff trains the Zoo’s animals through operant conditioning to make medical procedures much easier. “Training is wonderful,” Robertson remarked. “We come together with the keepers with the goal of making medical care easier. For instance, we have one of the largest populations of giant anteaters in the world in an off view breeding facility. These solitary animals require quiet, individual areas. Our keeper and husbandry staff has done a great job getting the anteaters desensitized for touch. We can station them at an open stall door and do injections, cardiac and abdominal ultrasounds, and do physical exams, all while they are awake. Providing veterinary care without having to sedate or restrain any animal is ideal.”

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“We also train our many of our animals to get up on a scale we we can get routine weights,” Robertson continued. “We need to know what’s going on with them and weigh them. Additionally, we train them to go into a crate so it emergencies come up we can get them to the hospital. Training and medical care go hand and hand.”

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The veterinary staff at the Nashville Zoo works closely with the nutrition staff at the commissary. “We help the commissary oversee all the diets and it’s up to me and Dr. Margarita to decide on the proper nutrition for each animal,” Robertson stated. “We have four full-time commissary keepers who make the diets. Each day the keepers fill labeled containers and bins with specific diets for each animal. They’re prepared a day ahead so the animal keepers can pick them up first thing in the morning. Having a commissary staff lets us control the nutrition very closely. We only use restaurant quality food and we joke that the animals eat better than us.”

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Preventative medical care is easier done with some species than others. “Reptiles and birds tend to be difficult because they can really hide their signs they are very ill,” Robertson reflected. “They’ll look great until they’re very, very sick. Tortoises in particular are hard since they’re shelled. Mammals, on the other hand, usually show their signs of illness early enough to medically intervene. Sometimes size can be really problematic as well. We may get a really tiny animal where they’re too small to perform diagnostic testing such as blood draws.” Additionally, sometimes individual animals can resist medical care. “Sometimes you know what the animals needs, but they won’t accept the treatment,” Robertson said. “We know some tricks to get them the medication they need, but you have to be careful with wild animals that may overreact to veterinary managment.”

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Heather Robertson takes great pride in the Nashville Zoo. “My favorite thing about the zoo is we’re in a rapid growth phase,” she reflected. “We’re celebrating our twentieth anniversary and are now designing some of the best habitats in the country in design, enrichment, welfare and care. We’re doing so much right now and I don’t know of any other zoo building so many exhibits at one time. I’m also very proud of all the great conservation work we do. We were the first zoo to propagate eastern hellbenders in human care. We have a large breeding program of giant anteaters and clouded leopards. WE also work with local wildlife and have head-start programs for alligator snapping turtles and streamside salamanders. But I’m closest to the clouded leopard project, since I am the SSP veterinary advisor for that species.”

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