Zoo Veterinarians and Curators: Building a Bridge Between the Camps
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2003

Mark D. Stetter, DVM, DACZM; John Lehnhardt, BS; Michele Miller, DVM, PhD; Sharon Joseph, BS; Don Neiffer, VMD; Joseph Christman, BS; Martha Weber, DVM; Jackie Ogden, BS, PhD; Scott Terrell, DVM, DACVP; Joe Kalla, BS; Deidre Fontenot, DVM; Grenville Roles; Patricia Robbins, MRCVS

Disney’s Animal Programs, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Bay Lake, FL, USA


How do we define a successful zoo hospital team? Is it the quality of animal care that is provided? What factors determine the quality of animal care? What makes a productive and enjoyable work environment?

Technical competency is one of the critical factors, which most medical, academic, and scientific facilities place highest on their priority list. We often judge ourselves and evaluate our departments strictly on our medical and scientific expertise. While this is critical to the success of any team, it is not the only item that is important for success. Most people are becoming increasingly aware that many other factors besides medical expertise are critical to providing excellent animal care. Some of these might include:

  • Effective communication within the hospital team and with other members of the zoo’s animal care staff.
  • Developing effective working relationships with other partners in the organization.
  • Understanding the different roles each person plays and outlining who the decision makers are under various circumstances.

In 1997, when Disney’s Animal Programs were created, more than 200 individuals from over 80 different zoological institutions were hired and all placed in the same institution. Each person brought with him or her different experiences and different ways of doing things. This unique opportunity forced the Animal Programs staff to focus on creating a unified team, which was less encumbered by some of the issues that had faced us at other zoological institutions. Since 1997, we have faced a variety of obstacles and our teams have worked through many growing pains. Our ultimate goal is to build a united Animal Programs team where excellence in animal care is achieved not only through technical expertise, but also through great communication and effective working relationships.

In order to help build relationships between the veterinary and curatorial team, we have used several tools and processes. Some of these include:

  • Discussing agendas and biases of each team.
  • Group development of a list of “Norms and Agreements” that we have all committed to follow.
  • Working through role clarification sessions and having open discussions about who are the decision makers in different situations. This not only includes situations when animals may be ill, but also such topics as collection planning and exhibit design.
  • Scheduling routine “face time” with each team so that issues can be discussed in a timely manner.
  • Developing “contact veterinarians” for the various teams within animal care so that curators and managers have a single source “go to” vet for various issues and concerns. The contact veterinarian does not get involved with daily clinical cases but acts as a point of contact for larger issues.
  • Physical proximity of our office working areas—regular, unplanned contact can help build good relationships.
  • Utilize objective, experienced, leadership professionals to help us work through difficult discussions, develop common goals, and identify individual and team roles.

By using the above tools and processes, we have greatly improved our communication and the relationships between the veterinary and curatorial teams. This has not always been easy and requires a true commitment to build and maintain good working relationships. We are fortunate to have an organization that understands that even though problems are inevitable, they must be dealt with effectively and not allowed to fester or be swept under the rug. Resources and expertise need to be available to assist in these challenging processes. Without leadership’s support and objective input, it is doubtful this much progress would have been possible.

An improved working relationship not only allows for a more enjoyable work environment but also translates into improved animal care. We have worked to become better advocates for each other during difficult discussions and we are much better at assuming good intent when questions and concerns arise. Our experience in the problem-solving process helps us deal effectively and in a timely manner with the problems that arise. Catching these problems early and having a format to discuss them prevents the big blow-ups (mole hills are fine, it’s the mountains we hate).

Disney’s Animal Programs has more than 400 cast members and working with a large group of people will always bring challenges. It has been our intent to minimize these challenges and to not only focus on the technical portion of our jobs but also address and improve the many other aspects of our roles that will allow us to be a highly effective animal care and conservation facility.


Speaker Information
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Mark D. Stetter, DVM, DACZM
Disney's Animal Programs
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Bay Lake, FL, USA

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