Don Neiffer’s first patient of the day is acting like a typical toddler at a checkup. First, she won’t go into the examining area. When she finally appears, Neiffer bribes her with snacks to get her to stand still.
Eventually, the patient climbs onto a scale to be weighed. Neiffer holds out a small red biscuit as a reward, and she sticks her pointed black muzzle through the mesh of her enclosure to eat it from his hand.
Neiffer (pronounced “nife-fur”) isn’t just any doctor — he’s the new chief veterinarian at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, responsible for the health of more than 1,800 animals. Among them is Bao Bao, the 16-month-old panda now nuzzling Neiffer’s hand, looking for more treats.
“You’re her new BFF,” jokes Laurie Thompson, the biologist in charge of the zoo’s giant panda exhibit.
“I think the person with the food bag is probably always the BFF,” Neiffer replies.
But if bribes will get Bao Bao to cooperate, Neiffer is happy to offer them. He raises one hand, and the panda cub, recognizing the sign to stand, lifts herself onto her hind legs.
“Good job!” Neiffer takes the opportunity to look over Bao Bao’s stomach, scanning for signs of illness or injury, then gives her another biscuit.
Next, Thompson and one of Bao Bao’s keepers, Nicole MacCorkle, use the treats to lure the 69-pound panda into another part of the enclosure so Neiffer can listen to her heart rate and examine the rest of her body. He massages her head and back, feeling for lumps, bumps and cuts that might indicate a health problem. Thankfully, all signs point to good health. (For those of you concerned about Bao Bao’s recent night up in a tree, where she hid after getting an electrical shock from a wire used to help keep her in her enclosure, the panda keepers report that she is fine.)
This checkup is just like the ones you have when you go to the doctor: It allows Neiffer to make sure Bao Bao is growing strong and staying healthy. It also helps train Bao Bao for future interactions with the veterinarian, ones where she might need to get a shot or be treated for an illness.
Besides, Neiffer enjoys getting to know the animals. In the two months since he started his job, the chief veterinarian has spent most of his time attending meetings, learning how the National Zoo works and finding his way along its winding pathways. Mornings like this one are a good reminder of why he became a zoological veterinarian in the first place.
Neiffer said he has always been interested in biology, the study of living things. When he was young, he liked to explore the woods behind his house, and he was fascinated by the ways humans, animals and the natural environment interacted with one another.
But it wasn’t until college that he thought about becoming a zoo veterinarian. During a three-week internship at ZooAmerica in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Neiffer performed operations on a sea lion, birds and an Everglades rat snake.
“There was so much variety,” Neiffer says. “I knew that vets could do these things on dogs and cats, but doing those treatments and exams on a whole array of non-domestic animals was exciting to me.”
Twenty-two years later, Neiffer has now worked with hundreds of animal species, from huge African elephants to tiny fish and birds.
He also has experience assisting conservation efforts in the wild. He helped relocate a herd of pronghorn antelope in Baja, Mexico, and worked with fishermen in Argentina to save endangered Franciscana dolphins that were getting caught in fishing nets.
Neiffer sees his work at the National Zoo as a continuation of those efforts. He hopes that seeing vulnerable species at the zoo will get kids and their parents interested in protecting those species in the wild.
“These animals are ambassadors for all their wild brethren,” he says. “We’ve asked them to help us get our message out that people can’t take for granted what’s around them.”
This morning, Neiffer is experiencing the zoo’s diversity in the space of a few hours. After Bao Bao’s checkup, he heads over to American Trail, where he and biologist Rebecca Miller feed and inspect a gray seal named Kjya (pronounced “ki-ya”). This is Neiffer’s first time visiting the zoo’s pinnipeds — a group of species that includes seals, sea lions and walruses — so he also asks Miller questions about the animals’ diet and environment.
Next is a visit to the Reptile Discovery Center, where a nearly 100-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise named Alex is showing signs of illness. Neiffer needs to draw blood from the large, lumbering reptile to test his white blood cell count, a number that indicates whether the animal is fighting an infection. Alex keeps moving away from him — apparently tortoises don’t like needles any more than kids do — so it takes about 20 minutes to draw enough blood for the test.
Then Neiffer drives his truck to the zoo’s veterinary hospital on a hill behind the main campus. Neiffer spends most of his days in his office here, overseeing the vets who work full time with the animals.
As he walks toward his office, Neiffer passes the hospital’s operating room, where vets are in the middle of a procedure on a white-cheeked gibbon, a primate species found in Southeast Asia. Neiffer checks the schedule to see what kind of surgery they’re doing — it’s a dental checkup.
“Animals have the same problems humans do,” Neiffer says. “Whether it’s a human, a dog, an elephant or a fish, they’re going to have dental problems, they’re going to get sick.”
It’s a good thing there’s a doctor on hand to help them get better.
He used to work with Mickey Mouse: Neiffer spent 16 years as veterinary operations manager for Walt Disney World’s animal programs.
His work at the zoo started before he’d unpacked: The weekend before Neiffer was supposed to start work, one of the zoo’s Asian elephants, Bozie, fell ill. The new vet volunteered to help treat her.
He loves birds: One of his first veterinary jobs was at an aviary, or bird zoo. “Birds don’t get the notoriety, but they definitely deserve attention,” he said.
He has had (almost) as many pets as he does patients: When he was young, Neiffer’s family had dogs, cats, rabbits, a parakeet, a guinea pig, ferrets, snakes, turtles, an iguana and kinkajous (rain-forest mammals known as “honey bears”). Now he has two dogs and two horses.
Even a veterinarian needs some animal-free time: His favorite non-zoo activity is kayaking.