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Taking Pride in Animal Care

From animal exams to doing "rounds": A day in the life of the Zoo's newest veterinarian.

Being a Zoo Veterinarian - Working with Different Animals

A feel of the neck to record a pulse, then the stethoscope to listen to a heart rate. A look in her nose and ears. Checking weight at the end of the exam (a healthy 54.2 pounds).

The visit to the doctor started in a way familiar to anyone who has been for a routine check-up or a minor illness. But the patient was rather extraordinary.

Five-year-old female red kangaroo named Chimera, after being sedated, was brought to the Zoo’s Sarah Allison Steffee Center for Zoological Medicine. Her keepers noticed an unusual lump on her neck that morning and had called the Zoo’s veterinary team to have a look.

Dr. Debra Barbarits was giving Chimera a thorough exam with help from two veterinary technicians and with input from her keepers, standing close by in the examination room.Dr. Debra Barbarits checks the eyes and ears of red kangaroo Chimera.

Dr. Debra Barbarits checks the eyes and ears of red kangaroo Chimera.

Red kangaroos can be prone to dental problems, Dr. Barbarits explained, so the keepers are extra vigilant about bumps that develop on the animal’s neck and jaw area. The prognosis after about an hour-long exam was an abscess that was drained and covered to heal. Dr. Barbarits prescribed an antibiotic and told the keepers that Chimera would be spending a few days in the Steffee Center to recover.

Chimera was just one of her “patients” that day. Dr. Barbarits was then off to perform rounds throughout the Zoo’s 180 acres.

“I really love not knowing what I’m going to see everyday and being able to jump from anything from a mammal to a bird or a fish. It’s always a challenge and it keeps you excited,” said Dr. Barbarits.

Dr. Barbarits is the newest addition to the Zoo’s veterinary medicine team. Hired last summer, she joins a team charged with administering medical care for the Zoo’s 450 species.

Every day is different, and the passion to provide the highest standards of animal welfare makes for an intense, non-stop schedule.

Each day, the doctors perform rounds throughout the Zoo, watching animals in their habitats, talking with keepers and performing routine and preventative exams. They also work in the Steffee Center, monitoring the animals in the hospital and performing procedures, X-rays and surgeries, some scheduled and some not. Occasionally the Zoo’s veterinarians even head out to one of the Metroparks’ 18 reservations to tag animals in the wild or to care for an education animal at a nature center.

The doctors balance their medical duties with a full schedule of meetings and collaborations with other departments and zoos: weekly animal care meetings, daily discussions with animal curators and keepers, ongoing interaction with the Department of Conservation & Science’s research team and involvement in habitat planning, exhibit design and educational signage. Frequent information sharing between zoos is common and encouraged, whether to share details on a newly arrived animal or to discuss innovative ways to care for an animal or solve a puzzling animal care need.

Dr. Barbarits performs an exam on the giant anteater that was born this fall in The RainForest.

Dr. Barbarits performs an exam on the giant anteater that was born this fall in The RainForest.

For Dr. Barbarits, it’s a dream job.

“From a very young age I was into everything I could possibly do here at the Zoo,” she said. A native of Broadview Heights, Dr. Barbarits remembers coming to the Zoo on Free Mondays with her dad before afternoon kindergarten.

Her love of animals and Cleveland Metroparks continued, and as a teen she volunteered with Zoo Crew (“I painted faces and was terrible at it!”). She remembers coming to the Zoo as a senior in high school, just days after the opening of the
Steffee Center.

“I was one of the first people there on one of the first days, and I remember watching Dr. Lewandowski work on a flamingo. I used to follow him from room to room! It really opened my eyes to Zoo medicine,” she said.

“I feel like so many kids grow up saying they want to be a vet. I’m one of those kids who never changed.”

Dr. Barbarits interned in the Zoo’s Department of Conservation & Science during her undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, and again years later as a veterinary student at Ohio State University, this time to research turtles in the Ohio & Erie Canal.

“I did anything I could to be around animals and the Zoo,” she said. The hard work paid off and she was hired full time last summer, returning to her hometown after working in Western New York.

“A lot of places talk about being training grounds for future talent, but with Dr. Barbarits you’re looking at the future of the industry. She was trained because of the commitment our donors have to this organization and because of the commitment our veterinary staff has to training students, from Dr. Barbarits to other students who have come through our doors,” said Christopher Kuhar, Ph.D.,
Executive Director of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Your Zoo is a recognized leader in animal welfare standards and management, and the veterinary team plays a crucial role. The Steffee Center, dedicated to diagnosis, treatment and surgical procedures, has a radiology lab, clinical labs, an endocrinology lab and a pharmacy.

Keeper Meghan McNamara and Dr. Barbarits talk about the animals in the Zoo's contact barn.

Keeper Meghan McNamara and Dr. Barbarits talk about the animals in the Zoo's contact barn.

The facilities allow for close collaboration between veterinarians and research staff on animal behavior, reproduction, endocrinology and overall health. Daily contact with animal curators and keepers is vitally important, too, in identifying health needs.

“Our keepers are phenomenal. They know all of these animals, whether it’s an elephant or a frog, they are looking at it and working with it every single day,” said Dr. Barbarits. “We trust in what they say. If they say something is off, they know those animals better than anyone else. They are looking out for the best interests of those animals and we help as best as we can with
that, too.”

In fact, many times a visit by a veterinarian begins with a call from the keepers, as in the case of red kangaroo Chimera, who has been released back to her outdoor habitat at Australian Adventure.

“Every decision we make in medicine we have to look at the animal’s welfare and consider if what we’re doing for them is good for their overall being,” said Dr. Barbarits. It’s a thrill, she says, to walk the Zoo and observe animals that she has helped.

“I never would have thought I could have achieved this dream so early in my career. I’m truly honored to be part of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and this veterinary team.”

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