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Zoo Veterinarian: Dr. Carlos Sanchez

Listen to the audio podcast.

Q: What’s a typical day for you like? When you come and start? It’s not nine to five.

A: It is not 9 to 5. I always say “Routine is never routine.” Seriously, this morning we had a procedure on an Alpaca; that is a South American camel. And then maybe I need to go check a Lion later on. And then someone will call me because one of the fish is looking sick. And then I gotta pick up and take one of the butterflies that’s not flying correctly. So any given day, I tend to see 3 to 4 animals that are completely different, from an elephant to a shrew.

So there’s also a lot of sitting down looking at radiographs (x-rays) of cases. Animals, like humans get sick. So if they call us, and the little bear is sick, we gotta find out why he’s sick.

The interesting part of being a zoo veterinarian is for the most part, you have to anesthetize, put the animal to sleep to get anything out of them. Blood samples, you can not physically restrain them like a dog or a cat because they are A – potentially dangerous to you or your staff or B – these animals can actually die in your hands because they get so stressed out and they just can’t fly away from you and basically just crash.

So we do a lot of anesthesia in order to gather basic information, such as a urine sample perhaps. Then it’s a lot of studying the blood results that we get from the lab. We are fortunate enough to have a lab here at this zoo. Very few zoos have their own lab.

We have a fully staffed laboratory downstairs that gives the result within hours. Now we have to get that and put it together with a clinical case, you know, how’s the animal looking, is it breathing ok, well the blood work shows this, the radiograph show this, then develop a plan. Basically, it’s like an investigation work. We try to find out the cause of why this animal is sick.

Q: A radiograph, is that similar to an x-ray?

A: Exactly, X-ray is basically what comes from the machine. That is what we call X-ray. The radiograph is the end product; it’s the image. So that’s a common mistake that a lot of people have. But basically you use an X-ray to produce an image and the image is called a radiograph.

The challenging part of our job is that we work with species that are very unique. And we sometimes don’t even know if that is normal or not. So we all learn on a daily basis something new about the biology, the anatomy, the physiology of animals.

Q: One of the things we wanted to ask you was how did you get started? What was your training and how did you end up here at the National Zoo?

A: Being a zoo veterinarian, it actually takes a lot of work and it takes some time. When you finish your Veterinary Degree, you’re qualified to treat dogs, cats, horses, cows perhaps, but you’re not trained with wild or zoo animals. After you’re done with Veterinary school, you have to do a specialized training, and that is what is called residency. In this case, it’s a logical medical residency.

Because I didn’t graduate in the states, actually, my path is a little different from most of the zoo veterinarians in this country. I got my degree in Mexico and worked at the Mexico City Zoo for 5 years; then I got a Masters in Wild Animal Health at the Royal Veterinary College in London. That put me in a good position to apply for a residency in the States; there are very few programs, 13 – 17 programs in the country each year. And you have 250 people out there every year, and a lot of these kids are trying to get into residency.

So, I applied for the residency at the National Zoo as one of the best known in the country. It has a huge reputation, nationally and internationally. I sent my papers and they accepted me. It sounds easy, but in 2001, I became the first Latin American to be accepted ever into a Zoological Medicine Residency. They’ve never ever taken a Latin American.

So it was fun and a lot of responsibility too. It’s a 3-year program under the mentorship of 2 or 3 veterinarians, and I finished in 2003. After that, they offered me a fellowship to stay another year for further training. When I finished that, there was a spot, and they offered me to stay as one of the staff or associate veterinarians.

Q: Did you always know that eventually wanted to work at a zoo or did you start off just wanting to do dogs and cats and that kind of stuff and then eventually want to take it further?

A: My story is a cheesy one. I ALWAYS wanted to be a zoo vet, seriously. I do remember when I was very young, my mom used to take us to the zoo in Mexico City. That zoo actually had the first panda born outside China ever, in the early ‘80s. My mom took us there and we waited for hours just to see, you know 20 minutes of the baby panda. And I said "I wanna work in this zoo."

And it wasn’t easy, but I ended up working 5 years in that zoo years later when I finished my degree.

I always, ALWAYS wanted to be a zoo vet and I’m fortunate enough that I work in a zoo, one of the best zoos in this country. And because of the size of the zoo, the commitment the zoo has with conservation, education and research, and I’ll talk about my functions later on, but I not only do clinic work on a daily basis, that’s my main responsibility here, is to be sure that the animals in this collection are healthy. So I do probably have the best job in the world and they pay me for that.

Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?

A: Oh, that’s a good question. I still enjoy doing a lot of hands on clinics on a daily basis. I do love teaching; I’ve been teaching 4 year vet students for the past 6 years. I like it and enjoy it.

We also have what we call and International Veterinarian Training Program. We accept veterinarians from other countries to spend here 6-8 weeks, hands on. And I do enjoy doing that a lot. But because I normally combine both of them, I have to have hands on in a case to teach the students of the International vets, so I do both things. They’re my favorite things to do on this job.

Q: How do you juggle that, 2 totally different programs. (The 4 year vet students and the International vets) Do they come at the same time?

A: Well, we have a maximum of having 2 people at the same time. One U.S. vet student and one, what we call IVTP student. At any given time we either have 1 or 2, but no more, because we also have a resident, that is what I did here, but we open the program every 3 years. So we have a 3 year resident; that person also needs hands on and training.

It’s complex. This zoo has 5 veterinarians, 1 resident, and students all the time. Plus 3 technicians and 3 (animal) keepers. It is a complex place to work in, but we all kinda figure out how to do it.

Q: Do you have a particular family of animals you prefer to work with? Do you like to work with some butterflies or gorillas?

A: I would lie if I said I liked absolutely everything. There’s some things I prefer. I do like mammals, in general. It’s a huge group. And I like herbivores, hoof stock, antelopes and that kind of stuff.

That said, reptile and bird medicine, it is fascinating. It is very different because normally we don’t think of bird medicine, other than they’re chickens and they get sick and probably you don’t take care of them or the little parrots, you put something (medicine) in the water. And in reality, bird medicine has really advance a lot. Same for snakes, tortoises; I mean, you can do anything.

Q: Do you ever put in a call, say to the San Diego Zoo, specializing in something that you didn’t know a lot about. Would you put in a call to them and say "Hey we’ve got this problem, and we can’t figure out."

A: Absolutely, there are less than a thousand zoo veterinarians in the country. We pretty much know each other. We go to a conference every year. So we all know each other. Particularly, the ones in the big zoos.

So yes, for example, if they are experts in koalas, because we don’t have koalas, by any chance we come across a koala and they have some urinary problems. We’ll definitely get the phone and say "Hey, have you seen this? How would you do that?" Because they have the expertise. You can not know everything.

Same way, we do get a decent amount of phone calls from people from other places, because we do have the expertise here in certain species, and giant panda is one of them.

We have a lot of interaction. The other thing you guys may want to know is we work with a lot of consultants. This goes to the point of veterinary medicine is now going the same way as human medicine is; that is specialization. We are specialist in zoo medicine. You know, we can treat a tiger or an elephant or a fish.

But there are certain things that other veterinarians are much better at than we are. If it’s a very specialized surgery, we may give it a shot. But there’s somebody out there that does it much better. And in the animal’s interest, we call that person in.

So we do have consultants and they are not necessarily other zoo veterinarians; in fact, most of the time, they are not zoo veterinarians, they are small animal veterinarians. They come help to do surgeries. Large animal veterinarians, they come to help treat a Przewalski's Horse with colic.

Or they’re human doctors that come here to help us with primates or other animals that have certain characteristics that are similar to humans. So we do work with, for example, Children’s Hospital a lot. And then we have consultants when we have a case where we need certain advice on abnormalities. With specific skills that we don’t have at the zoo or nobody has as a zoo veterinarian, we call the M.D.’s or we can call one of the consultants.

Now, veterinary medicine has dentists; they only do dentists on animals. You’ll be surprised that the only thing they are licensed to do is dentistry in horses. That is the only thing they do.

Q: Oh wow, give the horse a root canal, imagine that.

A: There are other ones that are only licensed to practice ophthalmology. They are eye doctors for animals. And there are plenty of those. So we bring an ophthalmologist here to check if this animal has cataracts.

We have dentists, veterinary cardiologists, we have radiologists, ultra-sonographers, and then the human doctors that help us too.

Q: So when you do those surgeries or exams and you have to put them to sleep; so you do the exam, and then you bring them back? Is there a recovery room?

A: There is, and I’ll show you the recovery room. We just used it this morning. This morning we had an alpaca. It is not a zoo animal, but it’s part of the petting zoo. And we did a surgery on that animal and we had it in the recovery room. We have used the recovery room for zebras, or Przewalski's horses, they are very endangered Mongolian horses.

And each case is different. If we have to do something with an elephant or giraffe, something massive, we’ll probably do it on place (where they stay) because we can’t transport that animal. Like a rhino, we used to have a rhinoceros here. So we’ll do the anesthesia down there, and the surgery, if needed down there.

If it’s a surgery, like that zebra. Well, we anesthetize it, put it in a trailer, ride with the animal in a trailer, come here (to the animal hospital), take it to the surgery suite. We have a great hospital; it’s almost 20 years old, so it looks a little old, but it has a lot of space and it’s very functional.

So we do the surgery, and the zebra recovering in the recovery room, may stay in a stall or convalescent space the size enough for a zebra.

Q: You were saying how you kind of bond with the animals. I’m from Philadelphia and they had a fire in their primate house. And they said that everyone was absolutely devastated. Have you had any experience where losing a particular animal or one that you had nurtured for a long amount of time or anything like that?

A: Well that case was absolutely horrendous, because they lost several great apes, particularly with a fire. You’re basically losing several relatives at once. And that particular incident was absolutely horrible. And everyone knows in the zoo world.

Fortunately, here at the zoo, we haven’t had an incident like that. But we have lost patients that we get attached to. I remember a case on a seal that we were watching for years. She was very old and we knew that her time was getting closer and closer. But you try to do the best and you try to keep her comfortable, to keep her healthy. We try to diagnose what was wrong with her. Very hard to work with marine mammals and at the end, she ended up dying. And the keepers and all the veterinary staff were very sad. It is a natural process, but still, you know it doesn’t preclude you from feeling sad.

Unfortunately, the difficult part of our job is that a lot of our animals, they’re wild animals. And the difference between a wild animal and a domestic animal is that, your dog is sick and you’re gonna notice right away, because he’s gonna show it. He’s not moving the tail the same way, he’s just not eating.

Well, zoo animals, wild animals by nature tend to hide disease, until they’re really, really sick, because otherwise, they would be prey in the wild. So, but they time they show any clinical sign and the keeper calls you and say “You know, I think Bobbi is not looking good today.” So you go and look and then you anesthetize and do exams, you discover that it has terminal cancer already, and probably has had it for 6 months. But they don’t show it. That’s a very hard part of our job. That you can try and try and sometimes you don’t obtain a result you want. And I think that is probably the hardest part of the job.

Q: And also, when you work with animal keepers, they’re there with them every day. It’s also their responsibility to notice that something’s off.

A: Yeah, we rely on keepers 100%. They are the first line of the staff reporting something abnormal.

We do have a list of sick animals and just like a doctor going through a round at a hospital, you go around and say "Alright, this orangutan wasn’t feeling good yesterday, you call, how is he doing today?" It’s the same.

We go down there and do a visual exam; if it’s not getting better, then we schedule a complete exam. But the keepers, because they work in those areas for years, they do have the expertise to detect things that, for the common visitor or veterinarian or ordinary people, that don’t have the ability to catch.

Q: Well, I was reading in your bio that you had spend some time in Africa, and I didn’t know if you were working with animals out the wild at all there or is it always been outside of their natural habitat in a zoo like environment.

A: In projects related to the Smithsonian, I’ve been to Africa a couple of times working on different projects. The first time, they wanted someone to be one of the clinical instructors in a course given to Namibian biologists that were working in the field. So we were working in the field, teaching them how to safely capture and anesthetize animals because they don’t have the number of veterinarians required to be participating in the project. We taught them the basics of that. We were basically capturing giraffes and lions in the wild for training purposes.

Then more recently, I’ve been to Namibia to participate and also we at the National Zoo have had a relationship with the Cheetah Conservation Fund for 25 years. It’s a partnership that has grown by the year. We used to have research studies, now we have clinical medicine, a partnership with them.

Recently a veterinarian, a local vet with them, used to do every single exam in that facility where they have cheetah’s being trapped by farmers. And people ask why they trap them, well because other wise, they would be shot because they’re still catching goats and other animals. So they’re a little bit of an annoyance down there.

The Cheetah Conservation is working with the farmers that they don’t shoot them. They provide the cages, they trap them, and they pick them up and keep them in captivity. These pens are huge, they’re not like cages. There still is, what we call, semi-captive animals.

So now that the veterinarian has retired, they have asked for support to do the annual exams. We’ve been there the last 2 years anesthetizing every single cheetah. That means 50 cheetahs in 2 or 3 weeks, to do complete exams.

Cheetahs are very interesting creatures, which they have particular diseases than no other animal, or even no other cat has. So, it’s a long term study that we are doing with them and the University of California Davis. And we participate taking gastric biopsies in every single cat. So it is very complex and it is very interesting.

Q: Do you have an equivalent of a nurse, or someone to come with you kinda help you take care of things?

A: Yes, in fact, in the U.K., they’re called veterinary nurses. In the U.S. they’re called veterinary technicians. Right now we have 2 full time techs and we are advertising for a third one. And basically, they’re licensed vet techs and extremely helpful. Otherwise, we couldn’t function.

They do all the prescriptions for us, they prepare all the medications and give it to the keepers. Depending on where the animal is, whether it is outside at the zoo, or it is a hospitalized patient, it will be here. If it is a hospitalized patient, they are the ones giving the treatment. They help us to set up for procedures. And they help us do technical aspects of the procedure.

Q: You were talking about the 2 programs, the Veterinary Preceptorship Program and the International Veterinary Training Program. Can you tell us about those?

A: Absolutely. The National Zoo has had a history of training veterinarians like no other institutions around the world. The veterinarians here for the past 30 years have trained a number of veterinarians that are now leaders in the field, not only in the States, but you check all the zoos around (the world).

The National Zoo has what we call a Veterinary Preceptorship. All the 4 year veterinary students have to do clinical rotations at school and also what they call outside rotations. They can choose. They can go and do, perhaps at the Capitol and follow a Congressman to see a legislation. Or they can do small animal emergency or they can do something else.

And there are those that like to do zoo medicine. And again, you would be surprised about the number of applicants we get every year. We are full year round. We only get one of those preceptors every 6 – 8 weeks, the program is a minimum of 6 weeks, a maximum of 8 weeks, to give a chance to other people. It’s basically the length of rotation they have at school. So they are people that are still learning, but they already know more or less what they are doing. And they get to do a lot of hands on here.

You have to have your foundation of medicines really, really strong to be a zoo vet or a wildlife vet or even a small animal veterinarian.

So they spend with us 8 weeks. At the end of the 8 weeks or 6 weeks, they have to present a project that they’ve been working on for those 8 weeks. Something that is important for the zoo. Sometimes they collect information about a disease that has been going on for several years, and they look at numbers; how many animals have been affected. What would be the best way to control that disease or why is it happening and that kind of stuff.

Doing preceptorships and rotations and other zoos outside the States, well the standard, although it has improved, is not the same, you know. In the United States and perhaps England is where the best level of veterinary medicine in zoos is done. There is no question about it.

So, for me, it was a unique opportunity to come to this country and be trained. And I told you that I was the first one (Latin American), which for me was shocking to find out that it was the year 2000 and nobody from Latin America had been here. Because I knew a ton of excellent veterinarians working down there. I had tried, but you know how it is. Luck And I decided to talk to my boss and I said "Can we start bringing in Veterinarians from other countries, particularly Latin America?" So they can have a chance, at least for 6 weeks to see how we work and you can inspire them to be a better veterinarian.

And I think inspiration is a good word. We starting calling it the Latin American Veterinarian Training Program. And then suddenly we got (contacted by) someone in the Philippines, somebody from here and there and obviously it is not fair to only open it to Latin Americans. And then we decided to expand it, and we’ve had so far people from almost 17 different countries. Mostly Latin America, but we have people from Spain, Denmark, Philippines, Taiwan, and then a number of countries in South America and Mexico.

And it’s basically a very similar program to the program we have for the 4 year vet students. They have the same responsibilities, they come to do hands on. So here, we decided, we’re gonna bring them, we are going to be strict in the selection process and it is. Obviously, English is a MUST. Because although I speak Spanish, and 2 or 3 people here do, well, the other staff don’t speak Spanish. So, everything is in English, that’s the main qualification. The other one is they have shown interest in the field of zoological or wildlife medicine.

Q: Are the vets here in charge of the evaluation process? Are you guys the ones who go through all the applicants and decide who makes the cut?

A: The 4 year vet students, the third year resident is taking charge of that. And I’m doing the International Veterinary Training Program. And what happens is, I get the files for all the applicants and I review them. And then I select the best one for that. And the same for the 4 year student. Now that Magarita Is doing that.

What we do have certain requirements. You have to send your transcripts from school, 2 letters of recommendation, a letter of intent explaining why you want to come here to do this. And then if you’re a foreigner, you have to send your English test records or TOEFL or birth certificate. Because that’s kind of difficult because sometimes they run these test once or twice a year in most countries. I am willing to do a phone interview as an equivalent, so I call them and we talk.

Q: What surprises you about your job? What coming into here did you not expect or think was gonna happen? Is there anything that caught you off guard that you were unprepared for?

A: Although you are always prepared to react and a perfect example would be an escape. You know, we have had escapes here and I would be surprised if there’s a zoo out there that hasn’t had and escape, because that’s what happens. The animals have 24 / 7 to find a way to get out. I remember one day a few years ago, when it was like 6 in the morning. I was already taking a shower and my cell just rang and they’re like it’s a clouded leopard out.

I live very close to here, in fact, most of the vets have to live around the zoo, within 5 – 7 miles. I live, you know, 2 miles north.

I was like "I’ll be there in 2" and literally I was here in 2 minutes. Basically, they had a keeper already visualizing the animal to know where it was moving. It was an animal that was really close to Connecticut Avenue. So that was a big fear. A – it’s gonna be run over by a car or B – it’s gonna bite somebody. Although it’s a clouded leopard, that’s this big, it could still injure somebody big time.

So what I’m thinking as I’m driving is "How I’m gonna catch it? How I’m gonna do this?" By the time I get here in 2 minutes, I already have a plan in my mind. I had already called my supervisor, Dr. Murray and she had called the other vets, we met up there, and fortunately, the animal really didn’t move much.

I was able to dart it on the first attempt. We were fortunate enough to get him in the first attempt, the animal just went to sleep, we put it back. And we found out the how the animal had escaped. It’s basically chewed through the mesh, this is metal mesh.

So that is the most unexpected thing that you can say.

I remember another day, they called for it was very early in the morning, a Saturday – I used to work on Saturdays – can you come? The zebra doesn’t look good. So I went to check it and this zebra, they’re like horses, sweating. This animal has colic, and it’s as bad in a zebra as a horse. And the worse part is you can’t get close to a zebra because he will probably kill you.

So we got to put a team together; at the end, we ended up bringing the surgeon because that animal had a twisted gut. So we anesthetize is, palpated it with certain tests and thought this is bad enough to go to surgery. Those are very specialized surgeries. It’s really hard. We have to do it, we probably can do it, but we decided to call a surgeon that they do 4 or 5 of those a week, you know, for the past 10 years. So we called Dr. Brown and she came all the way from Blacksburg, VA. We re-anesthetized the zebra and he’s still running around.

Q: If you were to give advice to students in elementary school, what would you tell them?

A: Well, if you’re really interested in being a veterinarian, I would say "This is THE BEST career you can have." You work with the best patients ever; animals are always great fun for you. Even if they can’t tell you, you can see it in their eyes; you know when you’re doing something good for the animal.

So if you want to be a veterinarian, I think that you just need to study hard, get good grades because it’s harder to get into vet school than it is med school. It is because there are less vet schools than medical schools. It is much harder. So you need better grades, so study really hard.

And then if you want to be a zoo vet, that is the best job in the world, once you go to vet school, try to participate as a volunteer in zoos. That way, you’re going to be more familiar with the facility, with the activities, and with the people around that place.


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