Work is a Zoo

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Katie Delk ’06 on problem-solving, medicine and the patients who delight us all.

Katie Delk’s day starts with a timber rattlesnake in her hands. The rattle, going full tilt, fills the room with the reptilian warning sound. The snake is a temporary visitor to the North Carolina Zoo, where Delk, a 2006 Davidson College graduate, is associate veterinarian.

Her job this morning is to give the snake a checkup, ever mindful that its fang-and-venom end is secured in a plastic tube. When she discovers a worrisome lesion, a veterinary technician asks if Delk wants to swab the sore for testing.

Katie Delk treating a seal, seal swimming

“I love the problem-solving,” she says. “I need to look at the seal’s eye, so how do I do that?”

In Delk’s world, there is no typical day. She and the rest of the veterinary staff, which includes one other veterinarian, tend to more than 1,600 animals from more than 200 species, ranging from hissing cockroaches to African elephants.

“No,” she says. “It’s under his chin. So, no.”

On this day, she goes from snake checkups to examining a harbor seal’s cut to mending a sore spot on a rhino.

Delk grew up in Atlanta, where her family had a dog and a cat. But she loved the outdoors and wildlife. She was the kid who rescued the injured turtle, put it in a shoebox and nursed it back to health. By middle school, she knew she wanted to be a veterinarian.

She earned a basketball scholarship to Davidson, and studied biology with professors who pushed and mentored. They provided an extra study session when she had to miss class for a game. Later, in veterinary school, she was one of a very few liberal arts graduates. Her Davidson experience equipped her with a different skill set and perspective, the capacity to reframe what was in front of her in order to find a solution. That’s helpful, given that her patients can’t tell her what is wrong.

“I love the problem-solving,” she says. “I need to look at the seal’s eye, so how do I do that?”

Meredith Clancy, an associate veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, worked with Delk during her residency at San Diego Zoo Global. Vet medicine requires hard skills—technical surgical skills, physiologic calculations—but is much more about using soft skills to get work done, Clancy says.

“These soft skills are communication—including persuasion—problem-solving, creative thinking and more,” she says. “So much of what we do is about using our soft skills to enable our technical skills and medicine. Katie came well-equipped with bountiful experience in creative thinking and problem solving that allowed her to use her honed and excellent medicine.”

Delk is on a listserv with zoo vets across the country, and they draw from each other’s specialties. They post questions about cases with which they’re struggling: Have you seen this before? What dosage have you used? She also stays in touch with a smaller group of zoo vets who studied for their specialty board examination at the same time.

Katie Delk treating a rhinoceros

“No case is ever the same,” she says, driving between habitats. “You have to
extrapolate for different species. It’s not like a dog or cat, where you can just get a blood sample.”

During a stint at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2015, she helped save a Sumatran tiger cub that was suffering from an unusual kidney infection, a story that captured the public’s heart and the media’s attention. Delk found nothing in veterinary literature but discovered well-documented research about a similar diagnosis…in humans. She translated it to a tiger cub. The staff hand-reared the cub—named “Suka,” meaning “Loved” in the Malay language—with round-the-clock formula and antibiotic feedings at first and treatments that lasted for months and ended with recovery.

“When many others would have given up, Katie gave her all,” Clancy says. “I’m happy to say she found the very unusual cause of his problem and to this day keeps up on his case. We couldn’t have saved his life without her work.”

Always Exciting
Early on, Delk wanted more of a challenge than doctoring to household pets. After graduating from Davidson, she worked for a year at Zoo Atlanta and discovered that a zoo vet combines her love of conservation and teaching with the excitement of an extraordinary range of animals for patients.

“I’m a nerd. I went to Davidson,” she says. “I wanted to be somewhere where I was constantly learning.”

After veterinary school at the University of Georgia, she spent another five years in internships and residencies at zoos in Tennessee, Kansas and California. She helped on a project to protect white rhinos in South Africa.
The mentoring she enjoyed at Davidson inspired her to do the same, and she guides resident veterinarians each day at the zoo and serves as an adjunct faculty member at North Carolina State University.

She has an NC State vet school student feel the organs in the rattlesnake and points out how to identify that the snake is a female.

“You count the scales (from a spot on the underside),” she says. “If it’s a female, you will only have about four scales.”

Delk knows the risks. She puts an imposing gate of steel bars between her and Olivia the rhino before working on a sore on the 1.5-ton mammal’s leg.

“She’s a very nice rhino,” Delk says, reaching around the bars to mend the wound. “But she forgets how big she is.”

The zoo staff works hard to make sure that there are no scary moments, but the small pack on Delk’s belt includes a syringe to quickly dart and anesthetize an animal. The threats they most often worry about are more of inconvenience, as she cautions when entering the rhino house:

“After being in here, you’re going to smell like rhino pee for the rest of the day.”

Dialing back through memories, Delk recounts how Davidson made it possible for her to spend a summer in Mexico working with green sea turtles through the School for Field Studies. She got a sense of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

More than a decade later, employed at the largest natural habitat zoo in the world, she offers what very few people can say about their job: “It’s always exciting.”

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Mark Johnson

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