Behind the Scenes with the Topeka Zoo Veterinarian

By: Shari LaRue


Being the Veterinarian at the Topeka Zoo means having knowledge in internal medicine, dermatology, neurology, obstetrics-gynecology, hematology, urology, allergies, diagnostic radiology, nutrition, pharmacology, parasitology, dentistry, anesthesiology, surgery and probably a few other medical specialties I have not mentioned. The responsibility of veterinary care for the Topeka Zoo animals falls to Dr. Shirley Llizo with input and assistance from all the dedicated keepers we have.


Becoming a veterinarian at a Zoo is a very sought-after profession. There are years of higher education required, and there are only twenty-eight veterinary schools in the USA which meet the accreditation standards set by the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association.  Dr. Llizo’s background includes undergraduate studies at Walla Walla University, WA and Michigan State University, MI. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (VMD, latin) from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, requiring another 4 years of studies.  Becoming a veterinarian requires taking a National licensing examination as well as a State licensing examination. Once you are in practice, continuing education requirements of 20 hours every year to maintain your KS license. Dr. Llizo has been the Topeka Zoo Veterinarian since 2006 and provides her expertise and dedication to all our various assortment of animals.


Providing veterinarian services to the Topeka Zoo animals means taking care of all the health needs of 73 species of mammals, 105 bird species, 26 reptiles, 3 amphibians and 21 different invertebrates for a total of 109 species. That is about 230 individual animals. The animals are on a schedule for receiving physical examinations. Exams may include diagnostic testing on blood samples and fecal samples, general examinations for any skin conditions, parasites, dental issues, auscultation (listening to the heart and lungs to examine the circulatory and respiratory systems), and blood pressure testing. We also have standing and portable x-ray and ultrasound equipment that are used as needed. Some of our animals, like the orangutans, have been trained to participate in having an EKG. Our big cats (lions, tigers and mountain lions) are trained to voluntarily participate in having blood pressures and blood samples taken from their tails). Our giraffes are in training to voluntarily have x-rays of their hooves done.  Dr. Llizo will also examine records of the animal’s nutritional status and the animal’s weight. She relies on the keepers input of any other concerns that are seen while working with the animal and knowing their behaviors.  Mentioning behavior is important because animals tend to hide any signs of illness, especially if they are prey animals. Signs of illness or weakness make them the target of predators so they are good at hiding problems. This means that often the problems are in a more advanced stage before the animal shows signs of illness, making medical management more of a challenge. In addition, preventative vaccinations are administered as needed throughout the year. Each animal has a medical record and through routine examinations, norms are established for each animal. There is also medical and husbandry information covered in AZA standards and consultation with other zoo veterinarians when needed.


Examination of the animals often require immobilization unless an animal is already trained for a certain procedure such as blood collection from the tail while awake. Procedures requiring anesthesia include surgeries such as castrations, spays, dental work, exploratory laparotomy, C-sections and other such procedures. When needed, Dr. Llizo may call on specialists within the Topeka medical community to assist with the care of our animals.  This may include area dentists, ENT’s, Ob-Gyn MD’s, cardiologists, surgeons or even using the area hospital’s CT scans or MRI’s. The Topeka medical community is always willing to assist when the need arises.


When it comes to decisions about reproduction, not only is the medical status of the animal a consideration, but many of our animals are part of the AZA’s (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) SSP (Species Survival Plan). AZA provides recommendations for breeding to manage healthy populations that are sustainable and genetically diverse and that enhances conservation of the species. Species in the SSP are animals that are endangered or threatened in the wild.  Some of the SSP animals in our Zoo include the giraffe, Sumatran tigers, orangutans, golden lion tamarins, black and white ruffed lemurs, Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, armadillos, and our trumpeter swans.


Medical care requires planning, preparation, having the right equipment and tools, and a knowledge of the medical issues of our many and varied animals at the Zoo. Emergency situations are prepared for by doing drills of different scenarios with the Zoo staff. As an example, the Zoo veterinarian works not only with the elephant keepers and other staff, but with the Topeka Fire Department to be prepared should one of the elephants go down and is then unable to get back up on her feet. Knowledgeable keepers are a valued resource in medical management. The quicker a concern can be discovered, the sooner a diagnosis and medical management can be initiated.


One of the difficulties in being a solo veterinarian at the Zoo is balancing work life with a personal life. Everyday can bring a new situation that requires medical attention, making it hard to take time off. In 2018, not only did we have two expecting giraffes (Abi and Hope) but we also had a pregnant Sumatran tiger (Jingga).  We welcomed two baby giraffes (Konza and Elizabeth) and four baby tigers (Raja, Badar, Bintang, Zayana) to our Zoo in 2018. In addition, we were working hard to open the new Camp Cowabunga in October of 2018. This meant the addition of the African painted dogs (Takoda, Ryker and Kellan), four Patas Monkeys (Harry, Winnie, Emma, and Freda) and two ostriches. Each animal goes through a pre-shipment exam from the Zoo it is coming from. When we receive the animal, it goes through a 30-day quarantine and another exam before it is allowed into its new habitat. Managing new arrivals, pregnancies, medical issues in addition to routine exams can make it hard to balance personal time. With our new Giraffe and Friends addition in the planning, we will be adding numerous hoof stock to the new larger giraffe yard. It will be another very busy time.


This brings us to the most difficult part of being the Zoo veterinarian, and that is the decision to euthanize an animal.  This is a decision that is made with input from the staff, determining not only the extent of the medical issue affecting the animal, but the quality of life for the animal. Medical management may include pain management, anti-inflammatory medications, wound treatment, surgery or other pharmacology interventions, but there comes a time in the medical management that continued care versus quality of life is assessed and the vet makes the hard decision to euthanize. It is not only a hard decision, but also an emotional trauma for many of the staff who have spent years of caring for the animal. As the veterinarian, Dr. Llizo not only performs the procedure, but then must perform the necropsy (animal autopsy). It is the hardest part of the job.


On the other hand, Dr. Llizo says the most rewarding part of being the Zoo veterinarian is to help the animals that need medical care and see them respond to that care. This is job satisfaction that is beyond measure. The desire to care for animals is why a person becomes a veterinarian. It is an extremely demanding but rewarding profession.