Animal science alum has a fantasy job with world-famous animal-themed resort

Deidre Fontenot, pictured with a Guam rail, works on conservation efforts for the species with support from The Walt Disney Company.

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.

“I’m grateful every day for the ability to influence conservation education on a larger scale. For me, Disney allows us to tell greater stories. When you think of all the classic animated stories you grew up with, you realize that conservation has always been ingrained in who we are.” —Deidre Fontenot

Deidre Fontenot examines a young Guam rail during a conservation trip to Guam, where Disney provides veterinary education, training and care.

Even more important, team members familiar with their charges are highly likely to note new and different behaviors that might signal oncoming illness or distress, allowing for early medical intervention when it benefits the animal.

For Fontenot, the educational aspect of the job is one of the most rewarding. For example, the attraction Rifiki’s Planet Watch brings park visitors to the Conservation Station, where they can get a close-up view of the veterinary treatment room, the Nutrition Center and the Science Center. “It’s a great opportunity to show guests how we take care of our animals,” she said.

Fontenot is especially proud of conservation efforts that reach beyond the Animal Kingdom gates — far beyond. Thanks to The Walt Disney Company’s support, she and colleagues have led an initiative to reestablish native bird species on the island of Guam.

The Guam rail became near-extinct in the 1970s due to non-indigenous snakes that were introduced on the island. Now, with snake-proof enclosures and other measures to keep the flightless birds safe, the people of Guam can again live alongside the native creatures they remember from childhood.

To learn more about careers in animal science, visit the Department of Animal and Dairy Science website.