How Zoo Veterinarians Become More Valuable: Deliver on Animal Health and Organizational Health
2018 Joint EAZWV/AAZV/Leibniz-IZW Conference
Geoffrey W. Pye1, BVSc, MSc, DACZM; Donald L. Janssen2, DVM, DACZM
1Disney’s Animals, Science, and Environment, Bay Lake, FL, USA; 2San Diego Zoo Global (Retired), San Diego, CA, USA


As veterinarians, we take the responsibility for the health of the animals under our care very seriously. To fix the broken, to make well the sick, to protect the health of the collection; that is what we do. It is our comfort zone and, as such, can become our fortress. We can hide in it, isolating ourselves in our animal health role. The consequence is a perception with our institutional leaders of a lack of appreciation of the organization as a whole, of being risk aversive, and too rigid, or even considered obstructive, in our roles. That lack of recognition often leads us to feeling undervalued and frustrated.

There is a path forward, however. To accomplish the mission of wildlife conservation and animal care, we must generate an interdependency between the health of the animals, the engagement of the staff, and the overall health of the organization. Therefore, veterinarians responsible for animal health will benefit overall by broadening their interest to the whole organization.

“Veterinarians do not acknowledge that the organization sustaining animals must stay healthy itself.”2

We might say, “But keeping our animals healthy supports the health of the organization.” And it does, but there is so much more that we can do to support the health of the organization. We have amazing stories; we can inspire our staff, our volunteers, and our guests. We have an incredible skill set: we diagnose (understand and collate complex data rapidly to make insightful decisions), treat (plan and implement actions), and make life and death decisions (perform under pressure). These skills can be applied outside animal health. We are authorities with unique training and experience like none other in the zoo. We should use that authority, with humility and respect, for the benefit of the animals, the organization, and its people. We need to be able to apply the brakes when truly needed. But only when needed; not just for the sake of exerting power and control. Our academic degrees, knowledge, and intellect are tools, not weapons. We can use these tools to build credibility and trust.

“Zoo veterinarians are in a position to protect us.”2

To be effective with this approach, we should work toward becoming high-level leaders who are welcomed and valued by the organizational leaders.1 In addition to deep curiosity about the whole organization, it may require learning new financial, marketing, and operational skills. It requires developing trusting relationships with leaders in these areas. In its essence, it demands that we be willing to step out of the traditional role and see things more holistically. In doing so, it is likely to transform our thinking. We may begin to look at our role as an owner rather than merely an employee hired for a specific purpose.

“It’s your zoo, and you want it to be successful.”2

The success of the animal health team and the organization cannot be separated. It is essential not to lose sight of the other when making decisions on the health of the animals or the organization. They are contingent on each other. The organization needs the animals to be healthy, and the animal health team requires the organization to be healthy to be able to deliver the care for the animals.

What happens when you balance delivering on the health needs of the animal with the health needs of the organization? If it is done well, you gain support for your needs. When you ask, it is not white noise; it increases clarity as a genuine need and not just a want. The “ask” comes with the knowledge that you have also considered the organization as you have consistently demonstrated doing so. You may find that animal health is valued more highly by the organization. Your influence will be sought at the executive table. Best of all, you gain influence to better the lives of the animals and people you are there to serve. Zoo veterinarians can be seen as having high value throughout the whole organization.

Literature Cited

1.  Janssen D. Upside-Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian’s Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader. San Diego Zoo Global Press; 2018.

2.  Janssen DL. Organizational influence: what zoo leaders say about veterinarians. In: Proc Amer Assoc Zoo Vet Ann Conf; 2017:151–153.


Speaker Information
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Geoffrey W. Pye, BVSc, MSc, DACZM
Disney’s Animals, Science, and Environment
Bay Lake, FL, USA

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