Suzan Murray ’84
Program director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program
It was the standard, even blah, question to ask a veterinarian: What animals do you have at home?
Suzan Murray ’84 answered like this: “I have two sons, a daughter and a husband.”
I laughed, because I thought she was being ironic, telling a mom joke about three kids and a spouse running amok during quarantine like, you know, animals. But she was entirely serious.
To understand her non-joke—and how and why Murray is making the world safer—you have to
understand her lifelong calling. She has wanted to be a veterinarian since age 5, when she saw a TV special on Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist. Murray
is now the program director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. It supports many projects, including one in which veterinarians, physicians, conservationists and others gather data and forecast the probabilities of the next viral outbreak—75 percent of which, like COVID-19, leap from animals to humans.
This spring, she testified before Congress and was cited in The Washington Post. Years before all that, she was the head veterinarian of the National Zoo. This undergrad biology major—who created her own pre-vet curriculum with Amherst faculty—has treated
giraffes, elephants, rhinos, you name it, and specializes in gorilla heart disease.
In learning about Murray and her work, I realized it’s routine for her to view Homo sapiens as one of many animal varieties, all tenants of this earth, and all bound to one another’s health and well-being. This is obviously true. But many of us kind of forgot before COVID-19 forced us to remember.
Getting back to those “animals” in Murray’s household: One of them, her husband, is an Amherst alum. Charles Hiteshew ’84 is executive director of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, in which corporations offer entry-level jobs for youth who are not in school and are unemployed. The couple has animals besides their children, of course. They include a giant Anatolian shepherd dog given to Murray in Namibia while she met with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, one of many groups the Smithsonian backs. The fund trains these dogs to chase predatory cheetahs away from livestock. The herd is protected, the farmers have no need to kill the predators, and the cheetahs live
another day—a win for all involved.
Murray loves to share in-the-field stories like this. One of my favorites concerns Jane Goodall, who
was Murray’s thesis adviser at veterinary school and fieldwork supervisor in Tanzania. “When I was in Tanzania, I got malaria—so she gave me my very first gin and tonic.” Plenty more animal anecdotes arise in “Creature Comforter,” the 2003 Amherst magazine cover story about a day in her life at the National Zoo, in which she treats an ailing gibbon, a Komodo dragon with lesions and a sea lion with a toothache. This occupational diversity is what makes a wildlife veterinarian irreplaceable. As she told me: “The role that veterinarians play in global health has historically been under-recognized. I think that’s one of the gifts I can give: to help show what our wonderful teams are doing around the world.”
Murray balked at having a Zoom meeting for our interview. (“My office is too messy!”) Over the phone, I couldn’t see if there was an arched eyebrow or hint of a smile when she made her “animals at home” comment. But by the time we ended our conversation, I could hear the grin in her voice when she said: “People are one of my favorite species.”
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