Denver Zoo breaks ground on new hospital

Head veterinarian calls it ‘a privilege’ to work with animals

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Being a veterinarian at the Denver Zoo means working with hundreds of animals, from the largest cats and primates to the smallest frogs. In a world with so much diversity, staff relies on each other’s knowledge and, sometimes, learning from the animals themselves, said Scott Larsen, the zoo’s head veterinarian.

“It is a never-ending process of learning,” he said. “None of us knows everything about anything.”

In the coming year, the Denver Zoo is hoping to share a little bit of that knowledge with visitors.

Last month, the zoo tore down its old animal hospital to make room for a new, state-of-the-art facility. Named the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Animal Hospital after a nonprofit foundation, the 22,000-square-foot building will have a diagnostics lab, quarantine space and a CT scanner.

The project was paid for in part by General Obligation Bond funds approved by Denver voters in 2017. Denver Zoo received $20 million for master plan improvements from the bond.

“The community continues to support the zoo and all that it endeavors today, and we’re here because the people of Denver said yes to the largest general obligation bond issuance to date when they approved the Elevate Denver Bond,” said Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock at the Feb. 7 groundbreaking. “The residents spoke loud and clear and said yes, and also said culture matters to us here in Denver. The zoo matters to Denver.”

New hospital a boon for animals and visitors

While the new building is under construction, the zoo will be caring for its animals in a former welding space on site that they have renovated as hospital space, Larsen said. The space is only about 1,200-square-feet.

In the new building, guests will have space for animal demonstrations. From an elevated lobby, visitors can look down into surgery rooms and the laboratory. The zoo is estimating the hospital will open in mid-2020.

The larger space will help the zoo care for the animals here in Denver, but Larsen said it also will help staff who work in the zoo’s conservation efforts in the wild.

“We try to take what we learn from our animals here and make improvements with how we work with those animals in the wild,” he said.

The same can be said for visitors. By teaching people how the zoo cares for its animals, Larsen said he is hoping that will translate into people caring about those same animals in the wild.

The hospital was first built in the 1960s, then renovated in the `80s, Larsen said. The renovation offered visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo’s newest animal additions, the babies born into the zoo’s care. One of the zoo’s most famous set of newborns, polar bear cubs Klondike and Snow, brought veterinary care front and center.

But over the past several decades, the zoo has changed a lot in how it cares for its animal collection, Larsen said. Although some of the zoo’s babies stay in the hospital’s nursery section, staff were making more efforts to keep those animals in the care of their mothers, Larsen said.

“That part of what we do that is very, very different,” he said about the new system of staff “assit-rearing” of baby animals.

The veterinary staff has also grown over the years, Larsen said. The larger staff has allowed the zoo to perform surgeries on the smallest of animals. But even still, the renovated space from the 1980s is falling behind new technology.

“We have made every effort to keep up with the pace of veterinary medical technology in our current facility, but now we need enhanced spaces, combined with state-of-the-industry tools, to ensure our animals’ well being for another 50 years,” said Bert Vescolani, president and CEO of the Denver Zoo, in a news release.

Caring for animals ‘a privilege’

Larsen agreed. The zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals, which Larsen has helped care for over the past seven years.

“We do so much more with our collection than we used to,” he said. “Really, we’re not able to continue to meet the needs of our collection at the level of care that we feel that we should provide.”

Larsen has seen some ups and downs in the time he has been at the Denver Zoo.

In 2017, a tiger the zoo received through a breeding program died of a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Although the zoo had to euthanize the animal, Larsen said he was proud of how quickly the veterinary team responded in caring for and diagnosing the large tiger.

Last fall, when Tonks the aye aye was born, staff noticed her mother was not showing maternal instincts. The U.S. has fewer than 30 aye ayes, a rare nocturnal Madagascan primate related to the lemurs. Larsen spent the night sleeping on his office floor, getting up every few hours, to feed the baby and try to keep it warm.

Staff members have thankfully been able to get the mother to take care of the baby, and they’ve been together ever since, said Larsen, who counts his contribution toward caring for the aye aye as a memorable one.

“It was one of my last experiences of the old hospital,” Larsen said. “It was not a burden — it was a privilege.”

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