John Ball Zoo

Keeping The Zoo Animals Healthy: The White Coat Effect

“The White Coat Effect”


Does your cat disappear the moment the cat carrier makes an appearance in the house? Does the very idea of a trip to the dentist make you nervous? There is just something about going to the doctor that makes some animals (and people) very nervous.


I was walking through the zoo recently giving a tour when I was reminded of this very fact. As we passed the cougar exhibit, our female cougar went from calmly sunning herself to intensely glaring at me. Despite other activities in the area, her eyes never strayed from me until we left. A visit to the deck overlooking the chimpanzee yard elicited a very loud announcement of my arrival from one of our male chimpanzees. Even the pygmy goats in the pygmy goat corral stopped what they were doing to yell at me as I went by. The final reminder came when we visited the Colobus Monkey exhibit. Our young baby Colobus was quietly playing in the grasses. When I rounded the corner, there was a brief flurry of activity as the baby’s mother quickly grabbed her baby and hugged it closely…all the time, watching my every move.


Whether you’re a cat, dog, human or zoo animal…some of us just don’t like going to the doctor! Working in Zoo Medicine is one of the most rewarding careers one could find, however, it is important to realize if you are thinking of becoming a zoo veterinarian that it is likely that you will not be the most popular person in the zoo, at least as far as the animals are concerned.


Whether we are examining a sick animal, performing a routine check up, or if we are just visiting an exhibit to check in on our patients, we try to find ways to make those encounters as stress and fear free as possible. Sometimes we accomplish this goal through the use of enrichment, special food items, or training. In other cases we rely on anesthesia to make the encounter as stress-free and safe as possible. These strategies make for a better quality of medicine, healthier animals, and safer situations for all the staff involved in working with that animal.


Regardless of these attempts, however, I think its safe to say, that I won’t necessarily be winning any popularity contests around the zoo any time soon. Even though you won’t see me donning a white lab coat around the zoo, many of the animals will maintain a healthy sense of suspicion when I come around.