Organizational Influence: What Zoo Leaders Say About Veterinarians
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2017
Donald L. Janssen, DVM, DACZM
San Diego Zoo Global (retired), San Diego, CA, USA


Organizational influence is the power to shape policy and planning. It can be the catalyst for making the right things happen. When a zoo or aquarium veterinarian’s ability to influence others is high, it benefits the reputation of the person, their team, the organization, and the profession. Ultimately, of course, the purpose of growing organizational influence is to enhance animal health and welfare.


To better understand the factors that may limit zoo veterinarians’ influence in zoos, interviews were conducted with leaders in AZA-accredited institutions. The author wanted to determine what actions veterinarians can take to grow their organizational influence. The selection of interviewees was based on factors including career impact as a leader and experience working with or as zoo veterinarians. The choice of those interviewed was not intended to be scientific nor representative of the zoo industry as a whole. The individuals selected were skewed toward those familiar to the author. Also, the interview dialogue and interpretations by the author were necessarily subjective and general. Thirty individuals were interviewed. They included zoo directors and CEOs, senior vice presidents for animal care, curators, animal health directors, other zoo veterinarian leaders, and recently board-certified zoo veterinarians. Each leader was asked three questions:

1.  What holds zoo veterinarians back from having more influence in their organizations?

2.  What special value should zoo veterinarians provide zoo organizations?

3.  What can zoo veterinarians change about themselves to increase their organizational influence?


Several common themes emerged from the first question about obstacles to influence. The most common point was that zoo veterinarians tend to isolate themselves in their medical role. One leader stated, “Zoo veterinarians focus on their world of medicine and lack appreciation of the organization as a whole.” Another common response was that zoo veterinarians have a reputation for creating unnecessary obstacles to programs and plans. The perception is that many zoo veterinarians are risk averse to the extreme and become rigid in their approach. Also, some thought that veterinarians tend to act self-important and show off their degree. A director commented, “They use knowledge and intellect as a weapon, showing no desire for partnership.” Another addressed the same concept by stating, “Veterinarians do not acknowledge that the organization sustaining animals must stay healthy itself.” One director gave an example of how it can be different. That director chose to promote a veterinarian to the executive level. That veterinarian “made a radical change.” He explained, “A focused clinician became an executive looking at things from a far broader perspective. That person blossomed, showing great insight.”

The second question asked about what special value zoo veterinarians should provide their organizations but perhaps are not given the opportunity. The most common response was that zoo veterinarians should serve as animal care advocates. Zoo veterinarians are icons for animal health and welfare. This role as animal advocates is valuable for the reputation of the organization. One person put it well: “Veterinarians are just plain credible as a profession.” Another common response was about problem solving. Veterinarians, due to their training and daily experiences, have a reputation as evidence-based problem solvers. They are good at analyzing and providing sensible solutions to complex problems. Their positive societal reputation is likely based on having the combined traits of compassion and scientific objectivity. But this may not match the organizational reputation. One CEO explained the root of this disparity by stating, “Institutional management tends to focus on strategy, while veterinary practice tends to focus on operational and individual cases.” Others commented on the value of zoo veterinarians in zoonoses management and epidemiology. The zoo veterinarian has a working understanding of the One Health concept. As a CEO stated, “Zoo veterinarians are in a position to protect us.”

The responses to the third question followed a similar theme. For a veterinarian to gain influence, having a holistic approach was what most suggested. Zoo veterinarians should focus on the health of the whole organization rather than on themselves or the animal health role only. One CEO stated, “Learn to step away from being a zoo veterinarian and become more interested in people.” To accomplish this, another suggested that zoo veterinarians look for leadership opportunities in their organization outside of veterinary medicine. A leader summarized this idea by saying, “Listen, learn, and understand the rest of the business. Don’t allow yourself to be isolated to clinical medicine alone.” Another typical response to this question was about learning to listen and improving self-awareness. Several of the interviewees thought that it was important to shift focus from self and move toward serving the needs of others. Some mentioned that zoo veterinarians should have a more realistic approach to risk. Addressing this point, a zoo operations executive was blunt. “Don’t be afraid to disagree, but don’t disagree just to disagree. Don’t go to the worst case just to get attention on the matter.” Recent efforts by zoo veterinarians to perform disease risk assessments and risk-based quarantines are positive examples of how to approach risk.


In summary, here are three general observations to consider in creating a plan to gain organizational influence:

1.  Veterinarians tend to have a reputation among zoo leaders for having a narrow interest and for creating obstacles to plans and programs. Opportunities exist to change this perception of zoo veterinarians.

2.  Zoo leaders see veterinarians’ unique value as organizational icons for protecting animal health and welfare due to their societal reputation for objectivity and compassion.

3.  Zoo leaders expect their senior veterinarians, like other senior leaders, to show interest in the whole organization and its people, not just their field of animal health.

To the latter point, one zoo veterinarian executive said, “It’s your zoo, and you want it to be successful. It always comes down to animal welfare, not about being right or wrong.”

The zoo veterinary profession has an opportunity to use its unique value and societal reputation to enhance its reputation among zoo leadership. By doing so, zoo veterinarians can grow their organizational influence and have a positive impact on organizational strategy and vision. Ultimately, that influence will help enhance animal health and welfare.


Speaker Information
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Donald L. Janssen, DVM, DACZM
San Diego Zoo Global (retired)
San Diego, CA, USA

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