The number one thing we hear whenever we interview someone about their job, whether it’s for our Dream Jobs column or our Startups To Start Noticing column, is that there is “no such thing as an average day.” Which is… to put it delicately, a lie. Most jobs can be simplified down to emails, spreadsheets and phone calls (or other, equally as uninspiring activities). Even working at a weirdo company like BYT calls for a lot of Gmail and Google Drive time (that is, when we’re not actively fighting against the beast that is WordPress). Katharine Hope, a veterinarian at the National Zoo, is one of the few people we’ve ever spoken to who can completely claim that phrase.
“This morning I went up to pandas at eight and then I went to go look at the bird house and then I went to go look at a frog in the reptile house and then I looked at a green tree python, I had to give it a shot, then I went and looked at a lemur,” she explains as she gives us a quick tour through the National Zoo’s veterinary hospital. “I think most people who become zoo vets, they want to work with a lot of different animals. That’s one of the things that’s alluring to us.”
(Pssst. If you want to hang out at the Zoo and eat great food and meet amazing people like Katharine Hope, get your tickets for ZooFari here. It’s one of our favorite events of the year.)
As Hope goes through her day, she points out two tiny little corn snakes that are in quarantine at the hospital. They’re her only clinical patients today. Hope knew she wanted to work with animals (especially gorillas) as a kid, but didn’t know how to get into the field. So she opted to go the pre-med route instead. After having an advisor who was a primatologist, she was inspired to work with animals in the wild. Post-college, she briefly worked at Lab Animal magazine (“I always thought it was sort of funny because when I was a teenager, I was in PETA and all that stuff. It was a weird job.”), was a veterinary assistant at the Friendship Hospital for Animals and then went to Tufts for vet school. Hope got her degree and was spending some time in Canada when the National Zoo called her up to ask if she would be interested in a temporary resident position. Luckily, the rest fell into place, and after becoming a full time resident, she was brought on as a staff vet.
While we walk through the pharmacy, the examination room and the surgery room, it becomes clear that Hope’s required breadth of knowledge is overwhelming. “Because we’re zoo vets and we see so many different things, we have to be really generalist in how we practice medicine. I know a little bit about urology, a little bit about cardiology, a little bit about dermatology and a little bit about whatever…” However, the thing Hope probably does the most is anesthesia. While some animals are trained to do awake procedures inside their exhibit (like ultrasounds, dental examinations and blood work) transporting an animal from an enclosure to the hospital, where vets can run even more tests and have more access to the tools they need, is a whole different beast. “We either have animals that are so big they’re going to eat us if we try to do an exam awake, or they’re so little that they’re terrified of us… I tell people, if I was going to say I was a specialist in something, it would probably be anesthesia. We do so much of it.”
Because of vets very generalist knowledge, specialists are often called in or consulted to fill in any gaps. This was especially true with the recent birth of Moke, a Western Lowland Gorilla. “When the gorilla was pregnant, we called a human OB and a human neonatologist and a human anesthesiologist and had them lined up to come help us if we needed to do anything,” says Hope, going on to describe the experience as one of the highlights of her career. A lover of gorillas and apes (Hope admits to watching Gorillas In the Mist at an impressionable age), working with Calaya (the mother) during the pregnancy and being able to watch the birth take place was astounding, even for someone who has zebras and lions on her operating table on a regular basis.
Working with keeper Melba Brown, Hope gave Calaya ultrasounds once a week from August 2017 until last month when she gave birth. “Within two months she got really comfortable with putting an ultrasound on, so we got to track the development of the baby,” says Hope. When Calaya’s water finally broke, the human specialists were on call and Hope quickly made her way to the enclosure to attend to the mother. “She wasn’t upset by us being there. It was amazing, she labored like a human,” she says, adding, “We had the orangutan birth a year and a half ago, but nobody was really there watching. So this was incredible.”
While most days don’t involve watching a 200+ pound gorilla give birth, Hope still spends a lot of time running around and interfacing with her patients, just like a doctor of humans. After answering emails and checking in with patients that she saw the previous day, Hope and the rest of her vets do rounds with the curators and then the day is split into either clinic work (staying at the hospital), field work (treating or examining animals at their exhibits) and an occasional desk day to answer emails and go through paperwork. Yet, even in the confines of a schedule, crazy things come up.
“On Friday I did my first sting ray anesthesia procedure, it was amazing,” says Hope as she pulls out her phone to show me photos of her anesthetizing a string ray in what looks like a giant kiddie pool. The sting ray has been diagnosed with a round cell tumor and the team was doing an exploratory examination to see if they could surgically remove the tumor. “I’m talking to a small animal oncologist now to get some ideas on what we can do. We have lots of friends that we’re all reaching out to,” says Hope.
Even though working with sick animals can be disheartening for the veterinary crew, they stay optimistic and focus on success stories. When I ask Hope about an animal she wishes she could work with at the Zoo, he eyes light up and she starts telling me about her time working with quarantined Tasmanian devils in Australia. “Getting to know those animals, they are so gregarious and so full of personality and they are, for the most part, sweet animals,” says Hope. In the last couple years, the Tasmanian devil population has been decimated by an infectious tumor that is transmitted by saliva. Hope teamed up with a vet to treat the quarantined population of devils, while he colleague worked with devils in the wild. She was shocked by how friendly a docile they could be, considering their reputation. “You can do your exam, you can get blood on them awake. They’re amazing,” she says. Hope goes on, adding, “I just feel like they’d be great exhibit animals here and it’s such a great conservation story.”
As Hope gives us a ride back to the Metro and we interrogate her about her time in Australia (how do you deal with all the spiders and snakes?), her passion for animals is abundantly clear. She’s exactly where she needs to be.
Feature image Calaya and her infant in the Great Ape House at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.