Inside Denver Zoo’s New Animal Hospital

Inside the small animal treatment room of Denver Zoo’s new $24 million hospital, a veterinarian, vet tech and caretaker learn what it’s like to be the ones exposed: To About four feet above them, visitors ogle the trio at work removing buildup of keratin from the beak of a tiny African penguin. Children press their hands and faces against the giant glass that separates the public viewing area from the room, which is lined with stainless steel cabinets and high-tech medical equipment. An interpreter on the microphone explains that Maddy, the flightless bird on the procedure board below, periodically needs her beak trimmed. “It’s made of the same thing as your fingernails,” she says.

the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Veterinary Hospital, a 22,000 square foot clinic that places the Denver Zoo among the best zoological care sites in the world, officially opened in late May. On this day, the crowd – guests allowed to give it a try just weeks earlier – gather around the action in the first of three halls which the public can now watch from a wide covered hallway. The second is a treatment room for large animals, such as camels and lions, and the third is an operating room. Above the windows, flat screens broadcast live feeds from the cameras inside, one of which can be manipulated by the interpreter to zoom in on areas of interest as proceedings progress. Classes. It is also his job to narrate and answer visitors’ questions, sometimes with the help of the vet, who has a line to the interpreter’s earpiece as well as the ability to speak directly to guests through the PA system .

The zoo’s state-of-the-art $24 million hospital. Photo courtesy of Denver Zoo

The setup makes the Denver Zoo one of the few in the country that allows visitors to watch its medical staff work on everything from one-foot aye-ayes to 900-pound zebras. When Denver residents approved a bond in 2017 to help fund the replacement of the old hospital — half the size of the new hospital and originally built in 1969 — the zoo knew it wanted to build a facility. which would allow its physicians to provide levels of care far above the industry standard. “Our veterinarians are four of only 230 or 240 people in the entire planet who are certified in zoo medicine,” says Brian Aucone, the zoo’s senior vice president for animal science. “We adapted the building to their expertise.”

If the welfare of the animals in its care were the zoo’s only concern, behind-the-scenes improvements might have been enough. But as it has for much of its 125-year history, the Denver Zoo has also thought about its responsibility to entertain and educate its other constituents: the humans who visit it.

The details of how, exactly, Billy Bryan ended up living in a cage in City Park in 1896 vary by source, but most point to the black bear and the crowds it drew as the origin story of the Denver Zoo. In those early days, the zoo was little more than a random menagerie of animals, fed and cared for primarily by park staff. “In reality, they didn’t have much experience caring for animals or understanding their needs,” says Aucone. “Putting a bear in a steel cage and stocking it with whatever food you could find was OK, because that’s what people knew.”

At the start of the 20th century, cages were still the norm across the country. So when the zoo debuted at Bear Mountain in 1918 — a replica of a mountainside near Morrison, separated from guests by a moat in which bears could frolic — it was a big deal. “It was the first attempt in the United States, and one of the first in the world, to look at a naturalistic design and think about the needs of the animal and what guests would be looking at as well,” Aucone said. “It pushed the bars aside and it also gave him a sense of belonging. As a guest, you walk in and understand, “Oh, it’s similar to the habitat an animal might live in.”

This paradigm of improving animal welfare in tandem with customer experience has guided the zoo ever since. Benson Predator Ridge, which opened in 2004, rotates African lions and spotted hyenas in three different enclosures; the animals leave each other with fresh and stimulating scents, and visitors have the opportunity to see both species up close in the smaller glass section. Four years ago, an exhibit called The Edge erected 12-foot-tall catwalks to help the zoo’s two Amur tigers see their surroundings as they would as predators in the wild, a thrilling, if disconcerting, experience for the humans below. And a new African penguin habitat, due for completion next month, will give Maddy and her friends more distance and depth to swim and dive, while zoo visitors peer through 40ft of glass below the surface some water. “Animal care and the guest experience are really the twin pillars,” says George Pond, Denver Zoo’s senior vice president of planning and design. “We can’t give up on either of them. That’s the challenge of designing and running a zoo: being able to hold your head up high and say you’ve met those challenges.

Judging by the band’s fascination watch Maddy’s beak trim, the zoo has found another fruitful intersection of human entertainment and animal welfare with the new hospital. In addition to the interactive viewing area, the Denver Zoo built the hallways and chambers of the facility to accommodate all but the zoo’s most gigantic residents (elephants and giraffes, for example, always get a treatment in their habitats) and invested in a nearly three-foot-diameter CT scanner, one of the largest on the market. Before, when Dr. Scott Larsen, Denver Zoo’s vice president of animal health, suspected there might be a tumor or broken bone inside a gorilla, he had to put the 350-pound monkey to sleep. and coordinate with a local partner, such as National Jewish Health, to transport the animal to a humane facility. “It’s an amazing diagnostic tool,” Larsen says of the device, whose images can establish baselines in healthy animals and confirm problems in sick ones. “Before, we were doing maybe seven or eight scans a year; now we do two or three a week.

Charlotte, a two-toed sloth, undergoes an examination. Photo by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/the Denver Post via Getty Images

Larsen hopes visitors will return often in hopes of witnessing a particularly exciting operation; he estimates that something will only be actively happening about a quarter of the time the zoo is open (and due to the emergent nature of medicine, there is no public schedule of procedures). The interpreter can still retrieve past footage, meaning your laziness-obsessed 12-year-old can ask to see, say, an ultrasound of a pregnant woman and perhaps deepen their connection to the zoo animals. and beyond. “Of course we want people to have fun, but it’s not just about coming here to have fun,” Denver Zoo communications director Jake Kubié said. “The better we design the zoo and the more time people spend, the closer they can get to the animals, hopefully this will inspire people to learn more and do more on behalf of wildlife.”

During the hospital’s dedication ceremony in late May, Mayor Michael Hancock reminded the public of an upcoming opportunity to do so by approving the $400 million municipal bond that will appear on the ballots of residents of Denver in November. Along with the city’s other cultural institutions, the zoo hopes to secure some of that money, which it desperately needs after the pandemic. In 2020, earned revenue fell 40% from 2019, but operating costs, including some 3,300 mouths to feed, fell only 18%. “Nothing is static here,” says Kubié. “Most of it is about advancement, but some are just keeping up with the upkeep of a 125-year-old campus.”

More accessible pathways and roof repairs, which the Denver Zoo requested funding from the 2021 bond for, may not be as exciting as a marquee attraction like the animal hospital. They are equally important, however, to ensuring the survival of the zoo and fulfilling its mission for another 125 years. “We look for the best for our customers and the best for the animals,” says Aucone, “and find where they meet.”

Benjamin M. Yerger