February 18, 2019

A Day in the Life


Written by Tracy Gray, Public and Media Relations Manager

Not everyone gets to say that their work day consisted of witnessing ultrasounds of a Dama gazelle and Nyala, attending a llama’s teeth cleaning, and watching a sea lion totally snub the Director of Animal Health with a flip of her fin. But I can proudly say that I had one of those days.

I have been the Public and Media Relations Manager at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for the past 14 years. During that time, I’ve witnessed some pretty amazing events. I saw two elephants being born, I watched one of our primates have his ACL repaired, and I attended a lion exam – just to name a few.

While those were pretty incredible experiences, I have always been curious to see what house calls are like for our Animal Care Team. So when Dr. Ginger Sturgeon, Director of Animal Health, said I could tag along with her, it didn’t take me long to say yes. Getting up close and personal with the Zoo veterinarian on her morning rounds was too good to pass up.

On a very frosty Tuesday morning in January with temperatures hovering around the mid-teens, I hurried to the ungulate barn to attend my first house call of the day; the ultrasounds of our Dama gazelle and Nyala. All three of our females are pregnant and due this spring.

Ungulate keeper Tim and Dr. Ginger slowly approached Trixie, the gazelle. Just like humans, most animals don’t look forward to a visit from the veterinarian. But together with our veterinary staff, keepers have eased much of that stress by helping the veterinary team develop a bond with the animals. Now, the animals are less stressed and more willing to participate in their care.

But despite Trixie’s level of comfort, Dr. Sturgeon still slowly approached the stall where the 10-year-old gazelle was waiting. Dr. Sturgeon quietly talked to her, explaining to me that she wants the animal to feel comfortable. She gently touched Trixie and tells her that the gel is going to be a little cold. The keeper was also there, talking softly to Trixie.

Trixie was standing still and didn’t seem bothered. Dr. Ginger gently moved the wand around her abdomen until the image appeared on the ultrasound screen. The white patches on the screen were tiny little calves. I could even see a heartbeat! I can’t wait to meet the little calves when they are born.

Next was a dental exam for Tin Tin, our llama in Kids Kingdom. I am not a big fan of the doctor or dentist so I completely understood why Tin Tin balked when he saw Dr. Sturgeon walk in. But she didn’t let that bother her. Again, Dr. Sturgeon’s bedside manner was impressive. She never rushed up to the animal, just slowly walked towards Tin Tin, talking softly, telling him how handsome he is, and assuring him he is going to feel better when she is done. I think he was trying hard not to fall for it but pretty soon he was putty in her hands. He didn’t even flinch when she injected him with a mild sedative. His keepers, Judy and Joe, stood with him as he slowly closed his eyes and laid down.

Dr. Sturgeon moved in. Tin Tin is an older llama and as many animals age, their teeth become weaker. Tin Tin’s keepers noticed he had been having a tough time chewing his food completely. Dr. Ginger took a look and noticed his large molars in the back were wearing down, so she re-formed them using what looked like a large nail file. I peeked over Dr. Sturgeon’s shoulder to see what she was doing. A llama’s teeth are big and it took a lot of arm strength to file down those back molars. His front teeth also had some sharp points and uneven edges, which Dr. Sturgeon also took care of. And last but not least, Dr. Sturgeon also changed up Tin Tin’s diet adding smaller pieces of straw and hay to make it easier for him to chew.

We waited for the sedative to wear off and in less than ten minutes, we headed just down the path to sea lions.

Zoey, our sea lion, was the first ever sea lion to be treated for cancer with a new and innovative treatment called stereotactic radiation. Since the treatment, Zoey has had her good days and bad days, with frequent check-ups from Dr. Sturgeon.

Today, the sea lions were swimming around in their pool, but Zoey definitely sensed that something was up. Since her treatment, keepers have noticed that Zoey reacts differently to new people – and doctors! – being near her.

Sea lion keeper Kesha called for Zoey to come over to the beach. Zoey circled slowly but did not get out of the water. As Kesha distracted Zoey, Dr. Sturgeon tried to approach unnoticed. Of course, Zoey spotted Dr. Sturgeon, flipped her fin in the air in a dismissive way, turned around, and swam across the pool.

Dr. Sturgeon laughed. She explained that Zoey now associates the vet team with check-ups and while she typically allows them to exam her, she occasionally wants no part of it, letting Dr. Sturgeon know with a flip of her fin.

Just like today, there are times when an animal does not want to participate in his or her own care. Dr. Sturgeon explained that no one ever forces an animal to do something. In fact, their practice is to just walk away and try again next time. This time, it was Zoey: 1 and Dr. Sturgeon: 0.

At the end of my day with Dr. Sturgeon, I had experienced some incredibly exciting and rare things, but I also learned a lot. Working with animals is similar to working with people. You get to know their personalities, their likes and dislikes, and the mannerisms that let you know how they are feeling. When someone asks me what is it like working at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, I honestly say it is something unique every single day.