Dr. Kadie Anderson (right) doing a procedure on a spider crab.

Dr. Kadie Anderson (right) doing an exam on a spider crab. Photo courtesy of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

June 23, 2021
By Jens Odegaard

Imagine you’re a doctor. Each day you get up and go to work. But you’re not just treating one type of patient. Some days your patients have fins. Some days they have shells. Some days they have fur and fangs. Some days they breathe through gills. Some days they have backbones. Some days they don’t.

Your patients are a menagerie from every province of the animal kingdom brought together to live in a metropolis. You and your colleagues are the medical care unit. Your job covers both preventative everyday checkups and emergency response and trauma care.

Dr. Kadie Anderson doesn’t need to use her imagination. This is her typical, “there is no typical,” day. “I work on everything here,” she said. Dr. Anderson, a 2011 graduate of the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, is an associate veterinarian at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. “I work on rockfish, sea turtles, eagle rays, sharks, tigers, red wolves, seals, budgies, snakes, really anything – even invertebrates like scorpions, crabs, sea stars. If it's at the zoo, I take care of it.”

Dr. Anderson is one of two veterinarians at the zoo. They and their technician team take care of more than 11,400 animals from more than 360 species.

Handling a caseload like that involves “lots of literature reading” and reaching out to other zoo and exotic animal colleagues for advice. “For example, we're just starting to do exams on our eagle rays,” Dr. Anderson said. “OK, where do you get blood from? How do you get blood? How do you anesthetize them? It's that whole chain of discovery, which luckily a lot of people have already laid the groundwork for. So it's just finding the information and working on it from there.”

It also involves a fair amount of using your ingenuity to develop new treatments, procedures and tools that can in turn be shared back with the rest of the zoo and exotics veterinary community. “It's definitely a lot of MacGyvering sometimes,” Dr. Anderson said. At Point Defiance they’ve built a recompression chamber that’s big enough to fit rockfish which can reach several feet in length. “There's literally no blueprint for building one of these, the Monterey Bay Aquarium started the process by building some smaller chambers, but we think we might have the biggest one.”

The recompression chamber is used to help Dr. Anderson and her colleagues treat gas bubble disease and other gas related disorders in their fish. “I just put a fish in last week that had a buoyancy issue. He was tail up nose down,” Dr. Anderson said. “We were trying to get him so he could swim in a normal position. We put him in the chamber and increased the pressure. It simulates the fish was going back down to deeper waters, and clinical signs resolved. So that was pretty cool.”

It was for this variety and novelty of work that Dr. Anderson pursued veterinary medicine in the first place. “I knew before I went to vet school that I wanted to work in zoo or wildlife practice,” she said.

Though there are few positions in the field, she set herself up the best she could. “I based my experiences during vet school around trying to get more exposure: The first summer when I was at Oregon State, I did the summer research program, and I got to go to South Africa and do work with African buffalo, which was really amazing; I spent time with wildlife vets; then for my fourth year I did a lot of rotations focusing on zoo and wildlife practice.”

These experiences helped open the doors to her career in zoo medicine, but Anderson says the No. 1 reason she’s been able to carve out a career in this field for the last decade is a personality trait. “I’m stubborn,” she said. Though most veterinarians have jobs lined up well before graduation, “I had the horror of, on graduation day, I didn't have a job. I didn't have an internship. I had no idea what I was doing. I decided that I didn't want to do a small animal rotating internship. I just felt it wasn't the right path for me. I felt like, I'm going to either try and get a zoo or exotics internship, which are highly competitive, or I'm going to just go into private practice and try and work at a place where I can at least still get exposure and help out with a zoo.”

Luckily, within a day or two of graduation, Dr. Anderson got a call from Point Defiance asking her to interview for their brand-new internship program. She nailed the interview and got the internship. A conservation medicine residency at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio followed. In 2016, she was hired into her current associate veterinarian position back at Point Defiance where she now helps run the internship program she went through. Dr. Anderson also recently earned her board certification from the American College of Zoological Medicine – putting her in elite company. Fewer than 275 veterinarians globally have achieved the distinction.

Each day is a fresh challenge. Point Defiance just recently had a baby tamandua born. “They’re little mini anteaters,” Dr. Anderson said. “She had a respiratory infection, which we successfully treated… and today, it was a very fishy morning, but Tuesday we had a tiger anesthesia and exam.”

In other words, every day is another atypical day as a zoo vet.