For most of us, encountering exotic animals face-to-face is a rare, magical experience — something that happens only at places like, say, Disney’s ® Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando.
Deidre Fontenot (BSA — Animal Science, ’92) has that opportunity almost every day. As the veterinary operations manager for the iconic wildlife-focused park, Fontenot oversees the core team of clinical veterinarians who care for the main attractions. And with some 2,000 animals, 300-plus species, 540 acres of parkland and a staff of 350 animal keepers, work at Animal Kingdom can be a roller-coaster ride.
“Dr. Deidre” has been with the park for more than 20 years, almost since it opened in 1998. After completing a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), Fontenot earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. She knew she wanted to devote her career to zoo and aquarium conservation work, so when she was offered a position with Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment program in 2000, she jumped at the chance.
At Animal Kingdom, the team begins each day well before the park opens its gates, making the rounds to animals that may need monitoring or medication. Because of the Florida heat, procedures requiring anesthesia are performed before sunrise. Although some veterinarians and caregivers are more familiar with certain animals, Fontenot said her team can’t really afford to specialize in particular species due to the intense nature of their responsibilities. In other words, if an elephant in the park has gotten injured, she can’t wait for “the elephant guy.”
“One of the interesting ironies is that a specialty in zoo and aquarium medicine means mastering a diversity of species. We have to be able to flex to whatever animal is under our care,” she explained. “We hire clinical vets who have expertise in zoo and aquarium species. It takes a large amount of postgrad training to acquire.”
At the same time, it benefits the staff and animals alike to get to know each other. Because of the trust they’ve gained in their caregivers, gorillas submit willingly to heart ultrasounds; elephants present their big, flappy ears for blood samples to be drawn; and exams for wellness and neonatal care are routine.