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Dr. Suzan Murray: Chief Veterinarian, National Zoo

Dr. Suzan Murray, the National Zoo's chief veterinarian
Dr. Suzan Murray, the National Zoo's chief veterinarian (Mehgan Murphy - Smithsonian Institution)
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The Partnership for Public Service
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 9:15 AM

As a five year-old watching a National Geographic television program on Jane Goodall, the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, Suzan Murray instantly knew she had found her calling.

As the National Zoo's chief veterinarian since 2001, Murray has been able to live out her childhood dream on a daily basis. In this role, she is responsible for ensuring that the zoo's 2,000 animals from 400 different species receive the highest level of health care.

"Every day I come to work, I know I'm responsible for providing health care to our extremely valuable collection of animals consisting of some of the world's most endangered species, Murray said. "Not only can we make a difference in an individual animal's life, but by caring for that individual, we can literally affect the entire population of a species."

A typical day for Murray and her team of four clinical veterinarians can range from giving a pregnant giant anteater an ultrasound to developing a treatment program to inserting a pacemaker to regulate the heartbeat of gorillas.

Trying to understand and adapt the treatment of each species can be a challenge, according to Murray, but it is also the greatest reward.

"Every time we diagnose and treat a different species, it's an incredible rush," Murray said.

To help her team manage the health of so many diverse species, Murray has established partnerships with medical colleagues in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, including dentists, surgeons and cardiologists who routinely donate their time and expertise on cases.

Kurt Newman, the surgeon-and-chief at Children's National Medical Center, has consulted on about 10 to 15 surgical cases of small primates over the past nine years.

"Although the National Zoo may seem different than a children's hospital, animals like little babies can't communicate," Newman said.

Newman said he and Murray also have a shared passion for health care and patient care, and their collaboration has enabled each to learn more from each of their respective disciplines.

Because the National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, Murray and her staff spend time conducting relevant, high-impact research. This enables them to support Smithsonian science and to impact policy and management decisions regarding the care of the animals at the zoo and in the wild.

After the loss of two male gorillas in 2006, for example, Murray and her team began an investigation into the causes of these deaths. They wanted to explore if a broader issue was the root cause and how they could best use the zoo's resources to address the issue.

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