Growing up on an old dairy farm in Connecticut made a lasting impression on Lucy Spelman. It sparked an interest in science, wildlife and nature, and her role as caretaker of the animals created a childhood desire to become a zoo vet. There must have also been a wellspring of “drive” at that farm, because she realized her dream in 1995 when she became associate veterinarian at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. She quickly advanced to head vet, and last June was selected as the director.
THE SHUTTLE SHEET: What is the future of the National Zoo?
LUCY SPELMAN: This zoo needs attention as a place. It’s an aging structure. We have star animals, but they don’t have a fantastic home. Years have passed without putting dollars into the infrastructure. We need to pay attention to what we need for the animals, the keepers, and for the safety of the public.
SS: How much of your job is fund raising?
LS: My job is varied. I’m very focused on the place and the animal care. I’m supporting the day-to-day function of the zoo and how it’s managed, but my primary goal is to secure this place financially. We need to improve our federal appropriations, but we also need to find private-public partnerships.
SS: How does it feel to be the first female director of the National Zoo?
LS: I love what I do. I’m oblivious to the rest of it.
SS: Do you still do veterinary care? How do you balance that an administrative duties?
LS: I’m in the park part of every day. I participate in daily rounds with two other vets. We start at 8 a.m., and we’re done by 11 a.m. Usually I take a guest with me – a potential private donor, a teacher, a member of Congress or someone from the Smithsonian. To continue veterinary work is how I keep my batteries energized, but it’s also a good way to show somebody something that they would never see – a tiger getting a root canal shows that this is a group of people who care about these animals. That’s an element of the zoo that’s hard to show from the front of an exhibit.
SS: What do you want the zoo visitors or your guests to learn?
LS: That the future of conservation on this planet means that we’ve got to continue to develop that human-animal bond, whether the animal is a dog or a tiger. Our lives are enriched by animals. I want the 3 million people who come here to see the hidden zoo, to see how much caring goes on.
SS: You talk about caring for the animals – what does that entail beyond food and shelter?
LS: My focus is preventive medicine, “preventive” meaning care for our long-lived animals: lions, tigers, bears, gorillas. We have an aging population of zoo animals because the veterinary care is so good. I never get tired of working on a tiger or a bird. I do anesthesia a lot. It’s an important element, and it’s an art form when it comes to zoo medicine.
SS: Anesthesia…how is that part of preventive work?
LS: If you do preventive medicine, you say, “OK, the bear needs his teeth cleaned, his nails trimmed and his vaccinations,” and you anesthetize him to do that. We have to be very cautious with anesthesia – an octopus is different from a tiger.
SS: What are your favorite exhibits?
LS: There are 4,000 animals, including fishes, birds, reptiles and mammals. All species are fundamentally interesting to me.
SS: What new exhibits or renovations do you have planned?
LS: The renovation of the picnic area and main restaurant will be completed by the end of summer. We need to work on our visitor facilities, not just our animals. Congress wanted us to show people about farm animals, so we start construction on a kids’ farm exhibit and a new bear exhibit next spring . It’ll probably take a year to complete.
SS: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment thus far?
LS: Getting the pandas here and establishing that program as a model for my vision as we revitalize the rest of the zoo.
SS: Tell us about your vision.
LS:: Pandas is a program, not just an exhibit. We need to think about this animal in the long term, in the wild. How are we contributing? What kind of research do we do? Pandas phase two incorporates planning for baby pandas. We want to build a larger habitat where they can make use of what they like, but still keep them close to the visitor. At the same time, we want to bring in other Asian species – the red panda, the clouded leopard, bird species – that we have in the collection to show people what else you way find in China. We also want to create a mountain stream so the pandas have a more natural place to live.
SS: If you had an entire day just to hang out, what would you do?
LS: I’d walk the zoo slowly. I’d go everywhere.