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15 Minutes With: Dr. Roberta Wallace


May 2017

Whether 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.”

What 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.

What 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 three months.

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.

What 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.

What 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 too.


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 Milwaukee.

5 El Gato, my cat.


This story ran in the May 2017 issue of: