Dr. Suzan Murray: Chief Veterinarian, National Zoo

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.

Their study found that gorillas, especially older males, have a relatively high incidence of a heart disease. As a result, the zoo's gorillas now receive a complete cardiac examination with each routine physical examine, enabling the veterinarians to monitor the cardiac health of their gorillas and to contribute to the study of cardiac disease in this species.

Murray believes that their ability to do research and provide first-rate medical care is what sets the National Zoo apart from others. "It gives us the chance to have a one-on-one relationship with animals in our direct care and contribute to research and conservation," Murray added.

In addition to her daily chores overseeing the huge animal population, Murray also has focused attention on hiring and training the next generation of veterinarians.

"When she started, there was a very small staff, but you had the sense that Suzan wanted this to be the best zoo medicine and hospital in the world and she has been able to attract a first-class staff that shares this vision," Newman said.

The National Zoo provides the opportunity for international veterinarians to come and train with Murray and her team, as well as allowing veterinarians from the National Zoo to go to abroad to gain in-depth knowledge.

Murray said the international effort is particularly important with so many infectious diseases affecting animals. She added that many countries do not have the resources and training to protect their wildlife like the United States. Her ongoing programs include helping to develop a preventive medicine program for giant pandas in a Chinese breeding center and a health assessment in Kenya of Kori Bustards, the heaviest bird capable of flight.

Her dedication to global conservation efforts and strong commitment to the best animal care would make Murray's childhood hero, Jane Goodall, proud.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work to recognize the men and women who serve our nation.

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