Zoo Veterinarians Care for Animals and for the Planet

Irus Braverman stresses their importance in times of global ecological crises.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

When people visit zoos, they go to see the caged nonhumans who are there, but rarely, if ever, get to go behind the scenes to see what zoo veterinarians do for their patients. I'm pleased to present this interview with the University of Buffalo's Dr. Irus Braverman about her new book called Zoo Veterinarians: Governing Care on a Diseased Planet that "highlights the recent transformation that has occurred in the zoo veterinarian profession during a time of ecological crisis, and what these changes can teach us about our rapidly changing planet."* Our interview provides a starkly different perspective from a recent discussion with Dr. Liz Tyson about her data-driven book Licensing Laws and Animal Welfare: The Legal Protection of Wild Animals that focuses on the poor welfare experienced by numerous "zooed" animals. I hope people will read both interviews and books. Here's what Dr. Braverman had to say. 

Why did you write Zoo Veterinarians?

Honestly, I was reluctant to write it for a long time. It was a topic that caught my attention already when working on my book Zooland, which came out in 2012. There were two big holes in Zooland that I was acutely aware of (and probably many more that I wasn’t): The first was my decision to not include aquariums in the book, and second was my decision to focus on many other zoo practitioners, but not on the zoos’ medical experts.

Let me just quickly explain the second hole because it has to do with the core insight in this book: Since my focus was the story of accredited North American zoos’ emergence as conservation institutions, and zoo vets seemed at the time to be oriented toward the individual animal and her welfare, I didn’t think they were as relevant to my work. Anyway, Zoo Veterinarians attempts to fill in these two gaps: It not only reflects on the work of zoo vets, which has changed considerably in the last decade but also explores the role of aquariums and their ongoing transformation into institutions of conservation. 

I’ll also say that I didn’t wake up one day to say, "Ah, I want to write a book about zoo vets." Instead, it was almost something that dawned on me after years of collecting materials for one article, and then for another article, and finally for a third. By then, a couple of presses contacted me to ask that I consider writing this book—something that honestly hasn’t happened to me before as an academic; we usually are the ones contacting the presses and not vice versa—and a few zoo vets that I was in close contact with urged me to take it on. 

Photo by Anders Engrob. Courtesy of Kasper Jorgensen, with permission.
A stingray surgery at the Denmark National Aquarium, Den Blå Planet.
Source: Photo by Anders Engrob. Courtesy of Kasper Jorgensen, with permission.

On top of everything, my observations in one North American zoo ended quite miserably: I fainted during a lizard operation, fell on my face, lost my front teeth, and a few other delightful occurrences. At that point, I was convinced that I should stop the project—the world seemed to be sending me a pretty clear message along those lines. But yet again, my zoo vet friends interpreted the accident differently and proposed that I use the writing of this book as a path into healing: healing myself and healing our diseased planet.

Accordingly, Zoo Veterinarians took a pretty stark turn after the accident and was more of a contemplation about the importance of “meddling” with each other’s expertise—and doing so carefully. As I wrote in the book: "Zoo Veterinarians is precisely such an attempt to meddle in what supposedly doesn’t concern us: the expertise of zoo and aquarium veterinarians. It aims to make visible veterinary practices and procedures that take place behind closed doors and that are perceived as being of no concern to the public, who wouldn’t understand them anyway." 

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

Zoo Veterinarians is committed to tracing changes in the way that zoo veterinarians think and practice, pointing to the interconnections between the health of individual human and nonhuman animals, populations, and ecosystems. After years of interviewing conservation scientists about biodiversity and teaching climate change, as well as studying the ecological devastation wrought by the settler-colonial regime in Palestine/Israel, the interconnections between human injustices and injustices toward nonhumans and the planet are becoming much clearer to me and much more difficult to ignore. And so I am currently working on an interdisciplinary conference that would bring together experts from diverse disciplines to discuss those interconnections in the context of One Health.

Who is your intended audience?

Anyone who cares for nonhuman animals and for the planet.  

What are some of the topics that are woven into your book, and what are some of your major messages?  

My major message is that zoo veterinarians have shifted their focus from exclusively caring for individual zoo animals to also considering and caring for the health of populations, species, and even ecosystems. 

Zoo Veterinarians documents this transition in perspective and the ensuing changes, as well as the difficulties, debates, and disagreements among the vets engaged in this process. The book also documents the ways in which aquariums have followed in the footsteps of zoos (in certain instances even surpassing them) and how aquarium veterinarians, too, are realizing the limitations of caring solely for individual animals. Perhaps because marine creatures live in a more visibly fluid environment than their terrestrial kin, aquarium veterinarians have quite quickly come to the important realization that when thinking about health, one must also think about communities, networks, and the interconnectivity among all forms of life.

The book’s four chapters cover different aspects of the zoo veterinarian’s work. I’d like to pause for a second on Chapter 4, which examines how and when veterinarians euthanize their animals and the standards and guidelines that apply to such practices.

While medical euthanasia is widely accepted in accredited zoos and aquariums in developed countries, the killing of healthy animals for conservation and management purposes has been quite controversial. The strong emotional reactions to the killing of Marius the giraffe by the Copenhagen Zoo has shed a very bright light onto this largely invisible practice, which some approve of and refer to as “culling,” while others condemn it. If I remember correctly, you were adamantly opposed to it, Marc, and dubbed it as “zoothanasia.” 

The killing of Marius also exposed the disagreements within zoos and aquariums about whether, and how much, euthanasia ought to be utilized in their facilities and, if so, how exactly it should be performed—for example, by gun or injection, with public necropsy or behind closed doors, with feeding the flesh to other animals or not, and so forth. 

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics? 

Despite their centrality to the modern zoo’s function, surprisingly little has been written about zoo veterinarians. While there exists a rich social science scholarship on zoos generally and on zoo professionals, such as keepers, registrars, and curators, in particular, zoo vets have received limited attention. Zoo Veterinarians attempts to remedy this scholarly neglect.

My book sets out to describe the recent emergence of the zoo veterinarian profession and its unique characteristics in both zoos and aquariums. The central insight from this account is that in an age of mass extinction, climate change, and emerging zoonotic diseases, the role of zoo veterinarians is shifting from caring for individual animals to caring for diverse species, resilient ecosystems, and planetary health. 

What are some of your current projects?

I am currently involved in a few long-term projects. First is my continued work on oceans and law. I recently received a grant from the Research Council of Norway to promote novel ways of thinking about ocean governance, and I have been facilitating several workshops to that end. My own research for this project moves from my prior investigations of tropical coral reefs into the deep sea to examine the negotiations over the new UN treaty on biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). I am especially interested in the law-science interface in debates concerning the management of marine genetic resources. 

The second project I am involved with is the study of national parks and nature reserves in Palestine/Israel. I have long been studying the politics of nature conservation in this region and recently edited a special issue on environmental justice in the occupied Palestinian territories. For my forthcoming book, I explore the contemporary regulation of nature reserves and wildlife across Palestine/Israel. Specifically, I draw on over 60 in-depth interviews with Israeli nature officials and on direct observations of their work to relay several animal-human stories—including camels, goldfinches, wild asses, fallow deer, and black goats—thereby illuminating the dynamics that take place in this region between domestic and wild, culture and nature, and settler and native. 


*Irus Braverman is Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Geography at the University at Buffalo. Her books include Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Zooland: The Institution of Captivity (Stanford University Press, 2012), The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography (coedited with Blomley, Delaney, and Kedar, Stanford University Press, 2014), Wild Life: The Institution of Captivity (Stanford University Press, 2015), Animals, Biopolitics, Law: Lively Legalities (ed., Routledge, 2016), Gene Editing, Law, and the Environment: Life Beyond the Human (ed., Routledge, 2017), Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink (The University of California Press, 2018) and Blue Legalities: The Life and Laws of the Sea (co-edited with Elizabeth R. Johnson, Duke University Press, 2020).