Creature Comforter

By Stacey Schmeidel


Suzan Murray ’84 has to welcome a new giraffe on Friday—but today is all about the cheetah.

Well, today isn’t only about the cheetah. As head vet at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Murray in the next 12 hours will tend to a gibbon with diarrhea, a zebra with an infected hoof, a toad with skin disease, a raft of turtles and tortoises with various ailments and Norman the sea lion. But uppermost in her mind today is one of the zoo’s six cheetahs, an 8-year-old male who several days ago began exhibiting symptoms of renal failure.

Murray is one of only three people with hands-on responsibility for the medical health of the 3,100 animal residents of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, more commonly known as the National Zoo. Founded in 1889, the zoo is one of the nation’s finest, with a collection of more than 400 species that annually attract between two and three million visitors from all over the world. Located off Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., above Dupont Circle and just west of funky Adams Morgan, the zoo welcomes visitors with a broad, ungated entryway that signals its accessibility. Open 364 days a year (visit on Thanksgiving; it’s quiet, and you’ll feel like you have the animals to yourself), the zoo, like the rest of the Smithsonian, charges no admission, and is designed to help scholars and casual visitors alike “study, celebrate and help protect the diversity of animals and their habitats.”

Murray became head vet at the National Zoo two years ago, after working for eight years at the Fort Worth Zoo. Athletic and energetic, with a square jaw and an open face that reflect her direct, genuine personality, Murray lights up when talking about things like gutloading meal worms to enhance an animal’s diet. Her job is demanding (after two years at the zoo, she finally has a schedule that allows her to work just five days a week), but she loves her work.


Malaika, a reticulated giraffe (right), arrived at the National Zoo in February, on loan through the Species Survival Program.

And she says this is a good time to be at the National Zoo. The park has just embarked on a 10-year renewal effort designed to make the zoo the very best in the world. A new Australia exhibit is in the works, as are a petting zoo and a new elephant house three times the size of the current facility. When the renewal is completed, species that currently reside in older facilities will be housed in modern exhibition areas designed to encourage the animals’ natural behavior and facilitate scientific study.

Murray arrives at the zoo’s hospital on this cold November Tuesday as she does on most weekdays, around 7 a.m., to check her e-mail and telephone messages before the rush begins. A one-story red brick building on a hill behind the zoo’s public exhibition areas, the hospital is an archetype of efficiency, designed to minimize stress on animals requiring care. A treatment room is adjacent to a surgery room, which is just across the hall from four wards where different types of animals can be held during illness. A downstairs lab allows vets to get test results very quickly. And the building’s loading dock opens onto a short hallway with a scale built into the floor; large animals can be weighed as they walk down the hall, before entering a large holding room that’s padded to protect against injury.


The hospital also houses offices for Murray, associate vet Sharon Deem and resident Carlos Sanchez, the zoo’s three primary-care physicians. Murray’s own office is minimally decorated and clutter-free; a wall of bookshelves holds hundreds of professional journals, along with a lone fiction work, Gone for Good, by Harlan Coben ’84, which Murray picked up in an airport on a rare weekend vacation a few months ago. On the walls hang photographs that Murray has taken of her favorite things: rhinos, cheetahs, elephants and her children, five-year-old Grant and two-year-old twins Jamie and Evan. (Murray is married to Charles Hiteshew ’84. They met cute in Valentine senior year: She sat down at a table with some pre-med friends, and when they asked her what she was up to she told them she was looking for a new boyfriend. “Sometimes you get what you wish for,” she smiles.)

At 8 a.m. Sanchez calls rounds, and Murray joins the zoo’s department heads for the daily overview of animals requiring medical attention. On the wall behind Sanchez is a blackboard outlining a rough schedule for the week. “Monday, bongo. Thursday, cheetah? Friday, giraffe.” Although “people doctors” specialize in a certain field, “zoo medicine is a specialty in diversity,” Murray says. “You need to be able to treat elephants, snakes, apes, turtles, everything.” Today’s rundown is typical. Sanchez outlines the pending cases: A tortoise with a liver problem, a Komodo dragon with lesions on its face and mouth. A 19-year-old gibbon experiencing weight loss and diarrhea is proving particularly difficult to diagnose.


And, of course, there’s the cheetah. The animal has a history of lethargy and anorexia, and over the weekend he began exhibiting signs of kidney trouble. Murray and Sanchez were called in to the zoo, where they sedated the cheetah and ran a series of tests. Everything pointed to some sort of kidney problem, “but we don’t know precisely what,” Murray says, so the vets took a tissue biopsy “to get a better sense of what was happening and whether it was curable.” The vets strongly suspect renal failure (it’s common in that species, affecting roughly 80 percent of all cheetahs that survive to adulthood in the wild), but “since cheetahs are so valuable, you want to be sure.”

The biopsy results will be available later today. In the meantime, zoo staff continue to assess the cheetah’s health while keeping him as comfortable as possible. “Depending on the biopsy results, we may need to start thinking about euthanization next week, or maybe even later this week,” Murray reports at rounds. She’s been in touch with the repro team—breeding specialists who will collect the cheetah’s sperm so that it can be frozen and used after the animal’s death. “They’re ready to come in at any time,” she says. At the moment, the cheetah is fairly comfortable, and daily receives subcutaneous fluids that rehydrate the animal while flushing out his kidneys.

That’s where Murray and Sanchez head after rounds. Their ride is a blue van adapted for veterinary use; all but the driver’s and front passenger’s seats have been removed so the van can be used to transport animals from their regular quarters to the hospital.

The Cheetah Conservation Station just to the left of the zoo’s main entrance allows visitors to see cheetahs and zebras engaged in natural behavior in a setting similar to their natural savanna habitat. Most zoo visitors see a large, open run with a slight rise at the back. Behind this, unseen by zoo guests, is the private cheetah space (which a wary photographer quickly dubs “the cheetah pit”). Murray and Sanchez loop through the zoo roads, then park on a private street behind the exhibit. “Walk to the left,” Murray instructs, as she enters an open complex of large cages. “They’re caged, but sometimes they lunge.”

cheetah GROWL

Several adult cheetahs prowl through the cages, constantly on the move. Another cheetah restlessly walks on the rise at the rear of the public exhibition area, which puts him about eight feet above the cheetah pit. A cheetah-chest-high strand of twisted barbed wire separates him from the caged cheetah run—and from the people in it. The animals’ coats are beautiful—a furophile’s dream—but even more noticeable is the cheetahs’ sleek athleticism. The coat begs for petting, but the raw, muscular power is a very visible warning that these animals, while enclosed, aren’t just oversized tabbies.

Murray and Sanchez radioed the cheetah keepers before leaving the hospital, and the keepers are waiting as the vets arrive, ready to contain the ill cheetah so that he can receive his fluids. If the vets are specialists on all things medical, the keepers are expert on the specifics of the animals they care for. Each keeper is responsible for a varying number of animals, depending on type and size. (The cheetah keepers, for example, also care for zebras, cranes and gazelles, which are also in the African Savanna section of the zoo.) The keepers know their individual animals like many people know their pets, and this knowledge often provides key information that helps the vets with their diagnoses. “He licked the ground as soon as he came out of his cage again this morning,” one of the keepers tells Murray, “just like he did yesterday.” Murray lights up like a detective who’s uncovered a clue in a perplexing case. “That’s interesting!” she says. “That’s called pica. They do that in the wild when they’re trying to get more iron in their diet. Of course, the fluids we’ve been giving him have iron in them. But since we’re giving them subcutaneously instead of intravenously,” she says, thinking out loud, “it’s taking longer for his body to absorb them, and so he’s probably still feeling like he needs more.”

It’s bitterly cold, so the vets tuck the six bags of fluid under their coats, against their skin. “He’ll be upset enough because we have to give him fluid,” Murray says. “It’ll really upset him if that fluid is cold.” The cheetah keepers hit the back of the cheetah’s cage with a stick. The cheetah is lively (“That’s a good sign!” one of the keepers exclaims), and he runs quickly away from the noise into a long run that leads into a smaller squeeze cage at one end of the pit. He’s wary, though, and it takes 15 minutes for the keepers to move him to the cage at the end of the run. The cheetah snarls and growls (another sign of health), and the other cheetahs in the pit watch warily, their ears pricked up. The cheetah on the rise at the back of the exhibit paces agitatedly, occasionally vocalizing in response to the ill cheetah’s cries.

caged cheetah

The squeeze cage is a simple but brilliant invention that has transformed veterinary medicine. The contraption looks like a regular wire cage with one side on a track that allows it to move. Once the cheetah is through the run and into the squeeze cage, the door to the run behind him is closed. The animal crouches resignedly down on his belly. Following Murray’s instructions, the keepers gently maneuver the mobile side of the cage, gradually squeezing the space so that the animal can’t lash out or turn around. Everyone is careful that the cage doesn’t squeeze too tight; if the cheetah is uncomfortable or in pain, the fluids will be more difficult to administer. Before the invention of the squeeze cage, “procedures like this would have been impossible,” Murray explains, “or they would’ve required that the animal be sedated, and that’s very stressful for the animal.”

Once the cheetah is settled in the squeeze cage, Murray lifts a small wire panel in the side of the box. The animal’s body is tight against the side of the cage, and Murray inserts a needle under his skin. The cheetah sits still as the fluids enter his system, growling occasionally with impatience. His illness isn’t apparent to the casual visitor; his coat glistens and his energy level (in this stressful situation) seems high. But to the keepers who know his regular routine, it’s clear that something is off. As they wait for this afternoon’s biopsy results, the keepers and vets look for clues to the animal’s quality of life.

Murray is practical but thoughtful as she outlines the factors involved with these critical discussions. Many of the keepers, she says, are incredibly attached to the animals, so when an animal dies—or declines to the point where euthanasia may be necessary—they’re often the ones who feel the loss most keenly. The vet’s role, Murray says, is to provide guidance about what’s happening to the animal’s body and what medical options are available. “Every keeper has to make peace with [the animal’s illness] in their own way,” she says. “And typically the units will decide as a group. Ultimately, it’s a combined decision [for the vets and the keepers]. One doesn’t really pull rank over the other. I can’t imagine a scenario where the vets would say, ‘It’s time’ while the keepers were saying, ‘The quality of life is still good.’” Keepers in tune with an individual animal’s routine will notice that a cheetah who likes to run outside every morning won’t leave the cage, she explains. Very ill animals will stop eating. Signs like this make it apparent that the animal’s quality of life has declined. “Generally, everybody provides their own input [about the animal’s routine and the animal’s medical condition], and the decision about what to do next is made by consensus. As difficult as the process can be, and as complicated as it is, we really do end up on the same page, even if it’s a difficult journey.”

Thirty minutes have passed, and the cheetah has become restless, growling and making short impatient meowly yelps. Fortunately, the bags of fluid are nearly empty. Murray withdraws the needle and the keeper gently loosens the squeeze cage. Everyone steps back as the cheetah quickly moves down the run to his regular enclosure.

Leaving the cheetah pit, Murray makes a quick stop at the enclosure of a zebra that for weeks has been hobbled with a hoof infection. Once unable to put down his hoof, the animal now moves comfortably, limping only when he runs. She turns next to a red kangaroo in an enclosure behind the zebra’s. “This little guy broke his arm a few months ago,” she says, pointing out the tape on the animal’s front left limb. “He shouldn’t be doing as well as he is, but he just keeps hanging on, and he’s doing really well. That’s why you never can tell.”


The cheetahs and zebras, along with elephants and primates, are why Murray “always knew” she wanted to be a vet. “We had a lot of animals in our house when I was growing up,” she says, “and my grandmother had a farm in Germany that we visited a lot.” But African wildlife was always especially fascinating to her. “I’d watch every National Geographic special, from the time I was five,” she says. “I remember seeing a program about Jane Goodall on TV, and I thought, ‘That’s me.’” She spent time with the scientist during her third year of veterinary school, and still refers to her respectfully as “Dr. Goodall.”

Murray talks off-handedly about being pre-vet at Amherst, even though the college has no official pre-vet track. She worked closely with adviser William Hexter and other members of the biology department to shape a curriculum that would prepare her for veterinary school. “The sociologists were also very helpful,” she says, “especially Professor [Donald] Pitkin.” She spent a semester during her junior year in Kenya, and Murray and Hiteshew returned to Africa for a year after graduation.

After Amherst, Murray was accepted at Tufts Veterinary School, one of the best in the country. A vet’s career path is as grueling as a physician’s: four years of vet school, a one-year internship (in Murray’s case, with small animals at the South Shore Veterinary Association outside Boston), and a two-year residency (which Murray served at the National Zoo). “During those two years, I think I had three days off,” she says. “The whole point of the residency is to see and do as much as possible, so that there’s nothing you’re not familiar with.” The hands-on experience is valuable, but it makes it hard to have a life.

Murray acknowledges that her career has forced some difficult choices in her personal life. She and Hiteshew were married eight years after they met, after she’d completed veterinary school. And although she’d always imagined working in Africa, he was ready to return to the States after they’d lived abroad for a year. “That was difficult,” she says. “Now that we have kids, though, I know we made the right choice. I didn’t realize until we had kids what a joy, and what a complication, they can be. Looking at it now, I can see we’ve made the right choices, even though it wasn’t always easy.”

She is casually dismissive, though, of the f word. “I have friends who are really strong feminists,” she says, “but I never really thought of things that way. I just always thought that there weren’t any real differences between men and women.” The number of women in veterinary medicine is growing, she says. “And it does require an incredible amount of persistence. You have to really want to do this, and you have to stick with it over a long period of time. But the difficulties for me had less to do with being a woman than with the level of commitment required.”


Today, the commitment extends to turtle enemas. Murray is in Amazonia, an enclosed tropical habitat that replicates the look and steamy feel of the Amazon rain forest. Behind the Amazonia exhibition space, three Amazon river turtles are awaiting transfer from quarantine to the zoo’s regular exhibition area. Like most of the world’s best zoos, the National Zoo participates in the Species Survival Program, a kind of interlibrary animal loan program that allows zoos to lend and borrow animals to encourage breeding and enhance the number of species on display.

Because of the SSP, animals arrive and leave the National Zoo almost every day. On Monday, one of the zoo’s bongos was sent off to the White Oak Conservation Plantation in Florida. Malaika, the reticulated giraffe that will arrive on Friday, is an SSP loan. (Interestingly, she’s being sent explicitly not for breeding purposes; the National Zoo has a young male, but wants a smaller, milder-mannered female to show while the new display for elephants and African wildlife is under construction.)

All of the zoo’s SSP loans must go through a period of quarantine, when they are isolated from the regular zoo population and evaluated by the vets, who make sure that the new arrivals aren’t importing disease. The three turtles Murray is checking today spent the weekend in a shallow pool behind the regular exhibition area at Amazonia. Anticipating Murray’s arrival, and needing individual stool samples to assess each animal’s health, the Amazonian keepers have isolated each turtle in separate grey plastic trashcans, each with an inch or so of water at the bottom.


A tortoise eggs-ray

Murray bends over and peers into the cans. “Any poop?” The keepers shake their heads. “Did you squeeze ’em?” The keepers nod. “Did you squeeze ’em real hard?” More nods. “Looks like these guys aren’t ready to make a contribution,” Murray laughs. So it’s time for a cloacal flush—three to be exact. A keeper grasps one of the turtles firmly by the sides of the shell, turning the animal’s head to the sky and his underside to Murray. The vet extracts a 12-inch length of rubber hose from her medical kit, attaches a syringe and sucks some water into the hose, then quickly inserts the hose into the turtle’s backside. “There’s not a fine art to cloacal flushes,” she laughs, as she squeezes the water up into the animal’s intestinal track. The turtle kicks constantly and attempts to swim through the air; the keeper’s face turns red with strain as he struggles to hang on. Murray works quickly, treating all three animals in just a few minutes, but by the third flush the keeper has broken a sweat, and collapsed into a seat. Turtles, it turns out, are surprisingly strong. The stool samples will be tested, and once they’re cleared the new turtles will be incorporated into Amazonia.

From the rain forest, it’s time for Ocean Living, where Murray wants to look in on Norman, a California sea lion who’s healing after a tooth infection. While the cheetahs were alert and wary, Norman is affable, almost eager at times for human interaction. “Whether he approaches is up to him,” Murray says. “It varies.” On this day, Norman swooshes out of the pool as soon as Murray and his keeper approach, jumping and barking like a 600-pound puppy. “Because he’s naturally more comfortable around people, we’re able to work with that,” Murray says. Once again, the keeper-vet relationship is key. Because the keepers look at Norman’s teeth when he’s healthy, the probing around his infected tooth has been far less stressful, Murray explains. The keepers will also touch the hind flanks of seals and sea lions during routine interactions, occasionally pricking them with an empty needle, so that real injections when necessary are less surprising.


A keeper checks Norm's tooth while Suzan Murray looks on

Norman’s tooth is healing nicely, so Murray heads back to the hospital, where Sanchez and an assistant are examining a tortoise that has been exhibiting egg-laying behavior (nesting, digging in the dirt) but not laying eggs. Is the animal pregnant and unable to lay? Or is the behavior anomalous? An X-ray shows two spirals of perfectly circular eggs in the tortoise’s womb. Definitely pregnant. So it’s time for a blood test to determine whether something is wrong with the animal’s system.

Taking blood from a tortoise is even more difficult than giving a turtle an enema; there are only a few spots in the animal’s leathery skin that are soft enough to accept a needle, and those spots are well hidden underneath the tortoise’s rocky shell. And this tortoise is bigger and stronger than the constipated counterparts Murray saw earlier; she bites and fights as Sanchez and an assistant struggle to wedge a roll of surgical tape between the shell and the leg to open a space for a needle. Murray steps in, and for a while the three vets battle for an opening. Eventually, a rolled hand towel opens the space, and the blood test is won. “The test will help us know whether she has a medical problem that’s preventing her from laying her eggs,” Murray explains. “Or it may be that there’s an issue with her habitat. Sometimes tortoises can decide to hold their eggs if the temperature is bad, if there’s not a hiding spot or if there’s not a good place to dig. We can work with the keepers to adjust the habitat, or we may give her medication to encourage birth.” If worse comes to worst, Murray has experience with tortoise C-sections. “You cut the shell open with the same kind of saw human doctors use to remove a cast,” she says, matter-of-factly, “then you glue the shell back together with the epoxy they use to repair boats.”

It’s now noon, and time for Murray to grab a quick lunch before looking in on the half-dozen hospitalized animals. Pathology rounds begin at 1 p.m., then there’s paperwork, and a 2:30 meeting to prepare for the Friday arrival of the giraffe.

The afternoon also brings the cheetah’s biopsy results; as Murray suspected, the animal’s kidneys are failing.

One of the realities of life as a zoo vet is caring for animals that are old or ailing. In fact, Murray says, zoos are, in some ways, like old-age homes for animals. Earlier this year, the deaths of several older animals brought national media attention to the National Zoo; officials had to remind overeager reporters that animals in zoos live far longer than they would in their natural habitats and are therefore susceptible to diseases and ailments that they might not survive long enough to encounter in the wild.

The next few days are nonetheless difficult for Murray and the cheetah keepers. The cheetah’s health declines rapidly. Lethargic and uncomfortable, he has no appetite. On Wednesday evening, Murray and the other vets meet with the keepers to discuss the animal’s prognosis. All agree that euthanization is now necessary to prevent future suffering. Murray contacts the repro team, and schedules the euthanization for Thursday morning.

The keepers are present as the cheetah is anaesthetized, then the repro team electroejaculates the animal and collects his sperm. “After the repro team was done,” Murray says later, “there was a quiet time for people to say goodbye before we administered the euthanasia solution intravaneously. The whole event is rather peaceful, though obviously quite sad.”

“But it’s important to know,” she adds, clearly a vet, “that because of the way it was done, the cheetah’s genetic material still exists, even though he’s gone.”

Photos: Frank Ward
Giraffe photo by  J'nie Woosley, National Zoological Park