There’s a lot going on in Suzan Murray’s mind… and her phone. As she bounces from one topic to the next, educating me on animal antibiotics, conservation technology and pandemic research, she pulls out her phone to show me photos from her colleagues in the field (which includes a truly adorable photos of a cheetah lounging on an operating table). As the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Global Health Program at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Murray’s job is to traverse space and time. While she manages a team thousands of miles away from her at any given point, she also has to keep her mind (and goals) focused on the future. Animal conservation is a long game and there’s no one more prepared to play it than the Global Health team.
“It sounds like a promo for the Zoo, but we really are a one stop shop for conservation,” she explains as we settle down to chat about rhino ultra sounds, gorilla heart problems and cheetah genetic diversity. Between her teams in Africa and Asia, Murray has a lot to juggle, but in the hour we spend talking about the future of her program and the in-depth challenges of conservation, she never seems to get tired of it. Instead, there’s a constant intensity. Murray is clearly passionate about animals, but there’s much more to her job than that. She knows that animal health ties into human health and environmental health. She knows what’s at stake.
Want to have fun and help fun amazing programs like the rhino project Murray is working on? Check out Friends of the National Zoo’s The Fast & The Fierce 5K Sponsored by Aegis Project Controls, which aims to raise money for the advanced care of injured and orphaned rhinos in Kenya.
BYT: What was your first job?
Suzan Murray: I have two answers to that. My first job in high school was at a movie theater, you know, selling popcorn after school to earn money. The first meaningful job I had bled into two. I was a veterinarian. I did my internship in Massachusetts and I did my residency down here at the Zoo. Residencies are hard, they’re long. They’re from seven in the morning to seven at night, seven days a week. The whole time I was here I only had two days off. It was crazy. On my very first day there was a cheetah that was anesthetized and I remember touching the cheetah and feeling like, “I’ve arrived.” I’m here at the Zoo in a residency and it was so amazing. It was everything I always wanted.
BYT: When did you realize you wanted to be a veterinarian?
Murray: I think when I was five. In vet school they had a statistic that 93% of you knew since you were five that this is what you wanted to do. Then we quickly calculated the size of the class and figured out that meant there was one person in the class who didn’t know. We spent the next four years trying to figure out who! Who could not have known that this was the best job? Then we did figure it out. It ended up being my lab partner, one of my best friends, but I didn’t figure out until the end. I was like, “It was you?!” And he was like, “Yeah, I was a dairy farmer.” Anyways, it was one of those things when I was with my dad watching TV. We were watching a National Geographic special and Jane Goodall was on TV and I said, “That’s what I want to do! I want to take care of wild animals.” And he said, “Alright, that’s what you’ll do.” So I felt like I had carte blanche at that point. Dad says that’s okay so there’s really no need to think about it again.
Interestingly enough, during vet school she ended up being my thesis advisor.
BYT: Are you serious? That’s incredible.
Murray: Yeah, it was a nice full circle… And even more full circle, we’re working in Kenya now on this great rhino project and when I was talking to the director two weeks ago about my trip, he said, “If you come out this weekend Jane Goodall will be here and maybe we can all get together.” And I thought, “Things really are a nice full circle.”
BYT: How did it feel to work with one of your idols?
Murray: It was… I didn’t even realize she was an idol or a mentor until I was there in Tanzania and I thought she’s an incredible force of goodwill and goodwill towards animals. I found it really fulfilling.
BYT: Tell me a little bit about your trajectory working at the Zoo. Obviously, you’re so much more than a veterinarian, you do so much with conservation and pandemic research. How did you get into those fields?
Murray: I did my residency here and then I went to Fort Worth Zoo for six years and then came back here as the clinical vet in charge of the hospital. During that time we realized there’s a real need for wildlife veterinarians globally. Not only to help protect wildlife and endangered species but for other reasons as well. Especially here at Smithsonian. There’s an incredible animal collection here at the Zoo and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. There’s also the idea of wanting to increase and diffuse knowledge and solve the worlds problems and act globally as well. Especially since we’re federal employees there really is a sense that we should be working along with the government to help address issues in the United States but also have the opportunity to work in all the countries that the Smithsonian is working in.
Over the last 10 or 13 years, as you think of emerging infectious diseases like Ebola or SARS or Nipah virus, the majority of those viruses come from the wildlife population and then they spread into humans. If you’re in a situation where people are ill and dying and you try to figure out what is the virus and the backtrack… Where’d the virus come from? What’s the path of transmission? How are you going to build the laboratories? You lose a lot of time and a lot of lives and have spent millions of dollars. So we’re part of this great USAID funded program called PREDICT that’s lead out of UC Davis with five major partners, Smithsonian being one of them. The idea is to look at the one health paradigm, if we want all species to be healthy, humans, animals and the environment, you need to take a holistic approach and look at all three things at the same time. It doesn’t really work to just save humans or just save animals or just save the environment.
Veterinarian medicine is a really crucial part of that and a very critical part is wildlife medicine. It was a collective realization that there’s a huge gap and who can fill it the best? We felt like we could fill it here at the Smithsonian. We can leverage all these resources to help save human lives and endangered species in the countries where we work. That’s what our Global Health team was born from.
BYT: That’s amazing.
Murray: Yes. We got funding to hire a Kenyan and an American vet to work side by side for the next two years. It’s not up for us to go and do everything, but to partner with our Kenyan partners and together say, “What knowledge can you bring, what knowledge can we bring.” Our Kenyan partners have tremendous experience anesthetizing a large moving animal, like elephants. And we might have more experience with advanced diagnostics or long acting antibiotics.
These partnerships can have a huge impact and a sustainable impact. Having two people there to work with the stakeholders and address the issues that come up and saying, “How can we create a system to address those issues?” But also connect it to the Zoo and FONZ and the public. Everybody that comes here has a role in saving the endangered black rhino.
BYT: How many vets do you have around the world right now?
Murray: Not enough, but we’re building it up. Currently on the Global Health team we have seven vets, a clinical team here at the Zoo that has six vets and then a clinical team in Front Royal that has two. We have an Asia regional team and an Africa regional team. We have people who can go to both areas, but now that we have the right people in the right places, we want to stabilize those teams so we can be the most effective.
When we developed the Global Health team there are three main projects inside of that. There’s the wildlife health project, we have a resource program that mostly looks at things like emerging pandemics. We have teams in Myanmar and Kenya that sample animals. The species most likely to transfer viruses to humans are primates, bats and rodents, so in both areas we have teams that are addressing that. We also have different research teams at the Zoo that work on things like long acting antibiotics, and how to use those things in the wild, then we have training programs.
BYT: Do vets have the same worries about over prescribing antibiotic as human doctors do?
Murray: Responsible use of antibiotics is huge. It really affects all of our health. Microbial resistance is a big thing now in terms of human and animal life. It’s the same thing if you have really ill people or really ill endangered species, if you only have a hundred of these animals left and they have a bug that’s resistant to something… Judicious use of antibiotics is a huge issue.
We have a long acting antibiotic project here at the Zoo. Some of our partners in other countries, like Kenya, might not have access to all the different types of antibiotics we use. So we’ll be working on a project and they have to leave and go dart and elephant again with the antibiotic they have. At one point, I said, “Why are you using that antibiotic? Why aren’t you using something that lasts a week or ten days?” Very often, that particular antibiotic is developed for people but there’s such species differences that the pharmacokinetics haven’t been done for a flamingo, an elephant or a giant panda. In order to do a real pharmacokinetic study you need a lot of samples and our pandas are all trained by the keepers to sit there and stick their arm out for a blood sample.
We tested out this antibiotic here with permissions from everyone, it’s a very safe antibiotic. We were able to determine in Tian Tian that one injection of this antibiotic lasted for ten days. That means a lot. When you have an animal in the wild, instead of having to take it in and treat it many times, we now have the ability to treat it in the wild and keep it in the wild. Our partners in Kenya won’t have to find a lion everyday and dart it.
BYT: You have a team in Asia and a team in Africa, is there somewhere else in the world where you’d like to see a Global Health team?
Murray: Yes. It’s funny, I was just talking to my supervisor about that yesterday. Part of what we look at is where are we needed and where do we have the resources to have a great foothold? In Central America, there’s the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. There are these great facilities, a lot of wildlife research and it is an area of emerging infectious diseases. It’s a hotspot. So I think that would be a natural place for us to work. We’re also good friends and colleagues with the teams down there.
But in terms of controlled growth we really don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, so I think we really need to get the Africa and Asia team well set up for the next four to five years before we expand any further.
BYT: To bring it all back into the present, can you tell me what an average day is like for you?
Murray: I don’t think the average day for me is all that exciting, by the way. I see my job mostly as trying to make sure we are connecting the pieces to make our team affective elsewhere. I go to a lot of meetings and write grants and edit things. I wake up early, help get the kids up, walk the dog and then meeting, meeting, meeting.
I think I get the most joy out of looking at the Whats App messages we get from our teams in the field. Like, here’s this cheetah! To know that they’re fulfilled and they’re getting the work done in the field. In Myanmar our teams discovered a novel virus in bats. So there’s a team of virologists with the PREDICT program who will help asses whether it’s a danger to people or not. It’s nice to discover something new.
BYT: How often are you in the field?
Murray: I was traveling quite a lot for a while. I was going to Kenya frequently and I was going to Southeast Asia. This past year I had my hip replaced and I had Lyme’s disease. That’s an issue in this country now because ticks are spreading everywhere. So I have not traveled in eight months, but I’m due to go to Kenya in September for a week or two.
I think I’m traveling the appropriate amount, but the rest of our team is out and about. Someone needs to stay home. Mark just came back from Vietnam where he’s working on a pangolin project, they’re a cool animal that’s the most trafficked animal in the world. Dawn and Lindsey are in Kenya right now. Lindsey’s on her way to Ethiopia to lead a training program and Dawn will be going to Rwanda, she works with the mountain gorilla project. And then Sally is also heading out to Kenya, Maureen is coming to Kenya. We have another team from Borneo that will be training here and then going back. When the Borneo team comes, they’ll not only work with the vets, but the curator of primates who is very interested in orangutans in the wild.
The Zoo is already a fabulous place, but when you scratch below the surface everyone has some many different experiences that they can contribute. We have people going everywhere and we have people coming here. And this is still a very nascent program. We’re only three years old. I’d like to see where we are in another three years.
BYT: You’ve already touched on this, but what are some of the conservation projects you’re working on right now?
Murray: We have been working with the Kenya Wildlife Services and Wildlife Trust to get samples from lion and cheetahs to help determine relativity and genetic diversity within different populations. In the past you had to dart the animal and anesthetize the animal to get the blood sample. Now we have these really cool biopsy darts, half the time the lions don’t even move. It goes in their leg, falls out, they move away and you have a little dart and from that you can get genetic information. It’s a very noninvasive way to gather that information.
With that information, we’ll be able to examine bush meat. So if someone says, “Oh this is cattle meat.” There are ways of taking that sample and saying, this isn’t cattle meat, it’s giraffe. The samples we get help with our own science and feed into other people’s programs and helps address wildlife trade issues.
BYT: How often does the technology you work with change?
Murray: It changes rapidly. The state of human medicine in this country is so advanced, we’re constantly looking at the one health approach and thinking, what do human medicine and animal medicine share? How can we adapt that for use in the wild? The long acting antibiotic was originally developed for human populations.
The leading cause of death in humans is heart disease and the leading cause of death in gorillas is also heart disease. Some parts are very similar to human medicine and some parts are very different. There’s a hormone used for humans called BFP and it helps diagnose heart disease early and we’re doing that with gorillas in human care too. If you can identify heart disease earlier on and you can start treating it, you can halt the progression.
With rhinos, we’re working on this advanced rhino medicine course. Part of it is bringing together specialists from all over. It’s everything from the best way to make a slide and stain and slide, to the best way for us to be collecting samples in the field, and what can you use those samples for? The course we’ve proposed is very multidisciplinary, but before we put on the course, we’re having a stakeholders meeting. Part of that is to ask, what do we all think is the greatest need? Is it little handheld machines we can use in the field to get blood samples? Or maybe it’s more about hand raising an orphaned animal.
BYT: We’ve talked a lot about the nitty-gritty details of conservation, but what advice would you give someone who is interested in helping out with, but doesn’t know where to start?
Murray: I would say several things. Volunteering, not everyone wants to get up early and go work for free, but we’ve had some really great interns this summer. They work for free, they work hard. Some people say they wouldn’t want to work for free, they don’t want to clean cages… I’m the head of the department and I’ll clean cages. I’ll mop floors. You do what needs to get done. We do really great things and it’s really rewarding.
The other thing I tell people is to donate. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be $20. Conservation costs. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, but if you want to help save a cheetah in the wild, this is how you do it.