she’s researching the diets of Humboldt penguins in Chile or managing
the blood pressure of a Western lowland gorilla, Dr. Roberta Wallace’s
days are rarely routine. As senior staff veterinarian at the Milwaukee
County Zoo, Wallace takes M for a walk on the wild side.
Have you always wanted to be a veterinarian?
I’ve always loved animals, and I was always drawn to biology, science
and the natural world. When I was in eighth grade, there was a career
fair at our school and we were handed a list of professions. I went down
the list and said, “no, no, no,” and at the bottom of the list was
veterinarian, so that was the thing that started it in my head. When I
was little and we went on vacation, my parents said I always dragged
them to the zoo, wherever we were, so in 11th or 12th grade, I said, “I
think I want to be a veterinarian in a zoo.”
kind of training is required to become a zoo vet?
In vet school, they teach you the basics of five species, depending on
the region. In 1985, when I graduated from Cornell (University), zoo
veterinary medicine was in its adolescence. I was fortunate to land an
internship at the National Zoo. You got pretty intensive training there
in general zoo animal medicine. I went to Indianapolis to learn marine
mammals, and that was basically on-the-job training.
are the most challenging cases you’ve worked on in Milwaukee?
Our Bactrian camels were jostling around when they were eating hay, and
one got a fractured jaw and got an infection. We had to extract a tooth,
give her antibiotics, and she had a reaction to the antibiotics. She
ended up in our new animal hospital and needed intensive care for about
The bonobos — the pygmy chimps — are quite prone to human respiratory
diseases. They don’t have a lot of natural immunity to the common cold,
and they could get severe pneumonias. We recently had a youngster that
was on a ventilator for 2½ days while her lungs cleared up. We had help
from some external pediatricians — consultants who help us with some
details of the more critical cases.
advice do you have for anyone who is considering zoo veterinary medicine
as a career?
Work with a vet or a wildlife rehab center and see if that’s what you
want to do. The career is driven by passion, because you come out of
school with quite a bit of debt. Most vets aren’t going into it for the
money, and you have long hours. For a zoo veterinarian, you have to be
persistent and willing to move. There are probably 175 to 200 practicing
zoo vets in the country, so you’re competing (with) a lot of people.
are your favorite zoo animals?
Penguins and large
cats — just because they’re so beautiful. I really enjoy the bears;
they’re smart, resilient, tough, and I have to respect them completely.
I enjoy some of the snakes and lizards as well. I really respect some of
these snakes too — how smart they are and engaged. I like moose a lot
MY FIVE FAVORITE THINGS!
1 My husband, Robert. We’ve been
together for 41 years.
2 Lake Michigan.
I like to be by the water on my days off.
3 Bike riding —
not competitively, just for leisure.
4 Kopp’s custard
— almost all flavors. I never had frozen custard before coming to
5 El Gato, my