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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2003 > Creature Comforter
Suzan Murray '84 with sea lion.

Creature Comforter

By Stacey Schmeidel

Suzan Murray ’84 has to welcome a new giraffe on Friday—but today is all about the cheetah.

Well, today isn’t only about the cheetah. As head vet at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Murray in the next 12 hours will tend to a gibbon with diarrhea, a zebra with an infected hoof, a toad with skin disease, a raft of turtles and tortoises with various ailments and Norman the sea lion. But uppermost in her mind today is one of the zoo’s six cheetahs, an 8-year-old male who several days ago began exhibiting symptoms of renal failure.

Murray is one of only three people with hands-on responsibility for the medical health of the 3,100 animal residents of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, more commonly known as the National Zoo. Founded in 1889, the zoo is one of the nation’s finest, with a collection of more than 400 species that annually attract between two and three million visitors from all over the world. Located off Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., above Dupont Circle and just west of funky Adams Morgan, the zoo welcomes visitors with a broad, ungated entryway that signals its accessibility. Open 364 days a year (visit on Thanksgiving; it’s quiet, and you’ll feel like you have the animals to yourself), the zoo, like the rest of the Smithsonian, charges no admission, and is designed to help scholars and casual visitors alike “study, celebrate and help protect the diversity of animals and their habitats.”

Murray became head vet at the National Zoo two years ago, after working for eight years at the Fort Worth Zoo. Athletic and energetic, with a square jaw and an open face that reflect her direct, genuine personality, Murray lights up when talking about things like gutloading meal worms to enhance an animal’s diet. Her job is demanding (after two years at the zoo, she finally has a schedule that allows her to work just five days a week), but she loves her work.

Malaika, a reticulated giraffe (right), arrived at the National Zoo in February, on loan through the Species Survival Program.

And she says this is a good time to be at the National Zoo. The park has just embarked on a 10-year renewal effort designed to make the zoo the very best in the world. A new Australia exhibit is in the works, as are a petting zoo and a new elephant house three times the size of the current facility. When the renewal is completed, species that currently reside in older facilities will be housed in modern exhibition areas designed to encourage the animals’ natural behavior and facilitate scientific study.

Murray arrives at the zoo’s hospital on this cold November Tuesday as she does on most weekdays, around 7 a.m., to check her e-mail and telephone messages before the rush begins. A one-story red brick building on a hill behind the zoo’s public exhibition areas, the hospital is an archetype of efficiency, designed to minimize stress on animals requiring care. A treatment room is adjacent to a surgery room, which is just across the hall from four wards where different types of animals can be held during illness. A downstairs lab allows vets to get test results very quickly. And the building’s loading dock opens onto a short hallway with a scale built into the floor; large animals can be weighed as they walk down the hall, before entering a large holding room that’s padded to protect against injury.

zebraThe hospital also houses offices for Murray, associate vet Sharon Deem and resident Carlos Sanchez, the zoo’s three primary-care physicians. Murray’s own office is minimally decorated and clutter-free; a wall of bookshelves holds hundreds of professional journals, along with a lone fiction work, Gone for Good, by Harlan Coben ’84, which Murray picked up in an airport on a rare weekend vacation a few months ago. On the walls hang photographs that Murray has taken of her favorite things: rhinos, cheetahs, elephants and her children, five-year-old Grant and two-year-old twins Jamie and Evan. (Murray is married to Charles Hiteshew ’84. They met cute in Valentine senior year: She sat down at a table with some pre-med friends, and when they asked her what she was up to she told them she was looking for a new boyfriend. “Sometimes you get what you wish for,” she smiles.)

Continued >>

Photos: Frank Ward (Murrary with sea lion, zebra); J'nie Woosley, National Zoological Park (giraffes)


Online Extra


Suzan Murray '84 discusses reactive vs. preventive medicine while administering to a cheetah (MP3 425k).

Norman the sea lion gets his tooth checked (MP3 159k).

Audio help


See more animals at the National Zoo


Smithsonian National Zoological Park

National Zoo Cheetah Conservation Station

Read more about Norman on the National Zoo's Seals and Sea Lions page

National Zoo Panda Cam

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