It’s a rainy day when I enter the Virginia Zoo’s new Veterinary Hospital and Animal Wellness Campus. Just inside the front door, a prehensile tailed porcupine named Dimitri hops from a wooden branch on an artificial tree to its base, grabs a piece of carrot and looks up at me.
“He was born in July and hand-reared,” says Dr. Amanda Guthrie, the zoo’s veterinarian. “Right now, he’s out for some exercise.” She moves closer and smiles at Dimitri, who’s leaping between piles of carrots and greens next to a water bowl, all while keeping a tender, curious eye on me. She hesitates for a moment as Dimitri looks up at her. “My favorite animal right now is Dimitri.”
The Virginia Zoo’s first full-time veterinarian on staff, Dr. Guthrie is one of only 200 veterinarians in the US who’s board certified in zoo medicine. She came to Norfolk in 2011 after working at zoos in Idaho and Texas. “I grew up in rural North Carolina, and we’ve always had animals. I’ve always wanted to be a vet. I don’t like being cooped up in a small office. I like to get outside in the light and the sun.” She motions for me to follow her as we begin our tour. “Zoo medicine is really a new specialty. I get to work with a wide range of exotic animals every day, and we’re always learning more. It’s really exciting.”
Before I met Dimitri and Dr. Guthrie, I toured the grounds outside the building. Between the entrance and the rest of the zoo is an orchard where Asian pear, fig and nectarine trees provide food and snacks for the zoo’s animals. Next to the ZoolLive! Stage, a new area for programming by the Education Department, sits the Enrichment Playground that is filled with all sorts of colorful objects used by the animals and a hill for visitors to watch what’s going on inside the center—everything from food preparation to surgeries.
Dimitri climbs back to the top of his wooden tree, and we head past him to the ICU where sick animals convalesce and to an apartment for students or visiting researchers to stay when they visit. It looks like a fun place to stay.
Past the pharmacy and the lab, we walk into the main treatment room, which can accommodate any of the zoo’s animals except the giraffes and rhinos.
“The first thing we bought is a dental machine,” says Guthrie. “We do a lot of dentistry. It has a scaler, polisher, drill—just like when you visit your dentist.” The room is also equipped with a new X-ray machine and ultrasound. “I really like the treatment room. We’ve acquired a lot of equipment that helps animals get better preventative care.”
We bypass the sterile surgery room and head instead into surgical prep. All the rooms have large picture windows looking out onto the campus grounds, where people can sit and watch and learn, something she’s especially proud of. “I do a lot of surgeries, but for the more advanced cases, we bring certain people in. We’re lucky that in this area there are a lot of great vets and a cardiologist at Sentara who helps us out. We do the same for the animals as your doctor would do for you.”
Next is the holding and evaluation area. ”Animals are held here if they are moving to another zoo or if they just arrived here,” says Guthrie. “We have to make sure they are safe to mix with the other animals, prevent the spread of disease.” The center has areas for small and large animals, carnivores, primate and hoof stock, as well as outside areas for them to get some sunshine on a nicer day.
In the diet kitchen, staff rotates in the role of ‘chef’ for the daily animal meals. Dr. Guthrie stands near the glass walls in the light, airy room overlooking the enrichment playground, seating area and stage.
“We feed almost all of the animals from this kitchen, 365 days a year, no matter what’s happening in the world or with the weather.”
Yohn Sutton prepares the fruit and vegetables in the morning and the meat and fish in the afternoon. They follow USDA guidelines, keeping protein separate from the other food, and after the meals are prepared, they goes into coolers which the keepers access from the outside of the building. Dirty dishes are dropped off in another area, all so there’s no chance of contamination.
The zoo spends more than $150,000 a year on food, not including grains like hay and alfalfa or the food they grow here. Dr. Guthrie sets all the diets, and works with the zoo’s horticulture team as well. “When we trim the ornamental grasses, we give it to the birds for nesting material.”
“Every animal has their own diet sheet, and for variety, we use items that are seasonal,” says Guthrie. “When people watch us make the animal’s food, we want to teach kids how animals eat really healthy fruits and veggies, and they should, too.” Visitors will be able to take a look at sample diet sheets and see what an orangutan or a panda eat every day.
As we head out of the kitchen and down the bright hall to say goodbye to Dimitri, Dr. Guthrie tells me she’s proud of the new hospital and wellness campus. It will teach visitors about animal medicine and the benefits of good nutrition and exercise, but the state-of-the-art facility will also deliver the highest level of animal care for a much larger number of animals than before.
She wants people to know that the zoo’s animals go through something we all will identify with.
“A lot of our animals live two to three times longer than they would in the wild, so diseases of aging happen. Animals get cancer, heart disease and diabetes, just like people do.”
Caring for the whole animal is important to Dr. Amanda Guthrie, in all stages of their lives. “This will be eye opening to visitors,” she says as we stop to say goodbye to Dimitri as he’s lounging on a low branch of his short, wooden tree.
“Everything here is very orchestrated. We look at all the aspects of an animal’s life—their whole wellness, enrichment and nutrition. We always try to do a better job each day.”
Now you can finally visit the Animal Wellness Campus and experience the Zoo’s newest attraction yourself. On April 23, the Zoo is hosting Party for the Planet on the Animal Wellness Campus grounds. From 10 am to 3 pm, visitors can enjoy animal ambassador presentations, education and discovery carts, chat with Zoo staff while learning about eco-friendly enrichment for the animals or stop by a conservation talk featuring some of the Zoo’s projects taking place around the world.
About the sponsor of this article: As an accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facility, the Virginia Zoo exhibits more than 500 animals, beautifully manicured grounds and offers a fun-filled day for all. For more than a century, the Virginia Zoo has demonstrated a commitment to wildlife, conservation and education. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located at 3500 Granby Street in Norfolk. Daily admission prices are $14.95 for adults, $12.95 for seniors (age 62+), and $11.95 for children ages 2-11. Visit www.virginiazoo.org or call (757) 441-2374 for more information.