Moving Outside the Clinical Role: Leadership Within the Zoological Community
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2003
Lucy H. Spelman, DVM, DACZM
Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, DC,USA


Zoo veterinarians naturally, and fairly often, step into leadership roles outside of the veterinary clinic. Our colleagues hold a wide variety of job titles that come with job descriptions that are distinctly different from “veterinarian.” These titles include department heads and professors (animal care, veterinary medicine, research and conservation, exotic/nondomestic/special species medicine) as well as assistant directors and directors (of veterinary schools, state or federal organizations, and nonprofit organizations including zoological parks and aquaria). Clearly, each of these jobs requires a skill set that extends beyond clinical medicine.

Why do zoo veterinarians make the step (or leap) from clinician to administrator or teacher or chief executive officer? What new skills are needed, and how are they acquired?

The first question can be answered quite simply; zoo veterinarians are highly trained problem solvers. They are also leaders who seek challenges. Moving from clinical medicine into an administrative role happens gradually for some, and suddenly for others. But the motivation is similar: to meet new challenges and solve new problems on a larger scale (the “bigger picture”).

The second question is more complicated. Zoo veterinarians already possess many of the skills needed to be successful leaders outside of the clinic. These include the ability to assess problems (diagnosis), prioritize them (triage), find solutions (treatment), and execute a plan (restore health). Zoo veterinarians are creative and flexible when necessary, but they also demand that certain rules be followed. They are good communicators and good collaborators. They have the ability to draw staff together as a team working toward a common goal, and they rely on a network of colleagues for consultation and advice.

In many ways, zoo directors perform similar functions and require similar skills. They must be able to identify problems and craft solutions. They must ensure the health of the entire organization including plants, buildings, staff, and visitors, as well as animals.

But there are also a number of skills that zoo veterinarians lack that are critical to successful leadership outside the clinic. These include fundraising, marketing, financial planning, and public relations. Gaining such skills requires a combination of on-the-job training, mentoring, and professional training. Short courses and workshops are excellent ways to gain many of these skills. Some of the most useful include media training, building donor relationships, management training, team building, and executive coaching. Travel to other zoos, participation in professional organizations, and exchange of information are other important ways to build experience and capacity in these areas. In the end, there is always more to learn.

Opportunity at the National Zoo

There are a handful of great zoos in the world and the National Zoo used to be one of them. The terrible state of its physical facilities has made it impossible to classify the zoo as being world class today. Nevertheless, the zoo is known as a leader in zoo-based research, veterinary medicine, and professional training. Its attendance ranks among the top ten for all zoos in the United States, with two to three million visitors each year. Its animal collection includes 2,800 specimens, representing 350 species from around the world, many of them threatened or endangered.

In January 2000, the (then new) Smithsonian Secretary established priorities for the future of the Institution as a whole, including the renovation of its oldest facilities. The 100-year-old National Zoo was placed at the top of the list for physical renewal. As a science unit of the Smithsonian, the Zoo was also charged with defining its areas of scientific expertise, both in Washington and at the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal. At the same time, the search for a new zoo director was launched. In June 2000, the zoo’s head of animal health (the author) was selected for this tremendous, but challenging, position.

To use the veterinary analogy, this position required a full year to assess and prioritize the problems (failing facilities, outdated financial systems, limited financial resources) and to begin to map out potential solutions. In June 2001 we established a new mission statement: to study, celebrate, and protect the diversity of animals and their habitats. We described our vision for the future: to transform the zoo’s various animal collections, exhibits, education, and research activities into a select group of “animal programs” by integrating each element into a more focused and exciting zoo experience. And we mapped out a plan to renew our role as a leading center for zoo animal care and medicine, reproductive science, conservation biology research, and public outreach.

The following year, travel to other zoos and formal training (media and donor relations) were extremely helpful. Solutions to problems were refined, and we began to execute plans (including raising funds both public and private). During the current year, strategic planning (organization wide) and executive coaching will be important additions as we continue our efforts to renew the Zoo with a focus on science. The future promises a steady flow of problems to solve, new challenges to meet, and new skills to master.


Speaker Information
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Lucy H. Spelman, DVM, DACZM
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Washington D.C., USA

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