When I was 4, my mom took me to the Smithsonian National Zoo, in DC. I was ecstatic. I love zoos and always have. What was I most excited to see? The panda bears. I loved pandas so much that my mom wrote me a little book for my birthday where I set out on a quest in search of one and fought a villain with my magical powers. To my utter dismay, the panda at the zoo had just died. I was inconsolable; “I don’t care, I just want to see a panda bear”. Little did I know, and had I maybe I would have taken the news with a little more grace, that 18 years later I would intern at the National Zoo and get to stroke the back of a panda.
Mei Xiang, the panda, sat across from me. We were there to give her laser therapy, a quick 2-minute procedure to help with joint stiffness and pain. Mei is a very sweet and well-trained bear. She knows exactly what to do and will do it quick as a panda can for her reward: honey water. She loves it. All the pandas love it (they really do love to eat). She pushed her back up against the bars so the vet could rub the wand against her. She doesn’t mind it but doesn’t love it as much as Luke the lion. You can hear Luke’s grumble and roars of pleasure reverberate inside your body, trust me. Besides positioning herself for her laser, Mei can lay down for her ultrasounds to see if she is pregnant (which she is not) and can put her arm out for blood draws. All with a constant stream of honey water. Seeing her and stroking her back was little Dayna’s greatest dream come to life.
Although the pandas were probably the most famous animals I got to see at the zoo, they were by no means the only interesting ones. I met Murphy the Komodo dragon, elephants, Cuban crocodiles, and many more. I watched every type of procedure, from the clinical exams of clouded leopard cubs to an intense surgery on Alice the crane to recreate a ligament in her leg. I have seen many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and the doctor saunters into the procedure room and gives some grand statement to start off the surgery like “It’s a beautiful day to save lives”. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting anything like that. But I thought there might be something along the lines of “alright, is everyone ready?” There was nothing at all and if I hadn’t been watching I would have missed the first cut.
The animals were the most awe-inspiring part of my job but my main project was looking at infectious disease mortality trends in the Zoo’s amphibian population. It was a daunting task. Here I am, fresh from college and knowing nothing about epidemiology, and I’m handed a giant Excel file with every amphibian death from 1960 to today. The freedom that my supervisor gave me was intimidating at first but turned out to be perfect for problem-solving on my own. My suggestion when given an overwhelming task that you don’t feel prepared for? Don’t panic, take a deep breath, and take it one step at a time. I configured the data over and over again to try to find some rhyme or reason to the deaths that we were seeing. Clusters of mortality are often an outbreak and so I searched for any abnormalities. Influxes of death by disease, species, order, time period. I came to the conclusion that environmental factors like water quality might cause a disease to spread rapidly through a population. Biosecurity, the management associated with risk from infectious disease, could also affect disease exposure if protocol is broken. In the end, I determined that disease management for amphibians is incredibly difficult. They are small and hide easily, making their well-being difficult to maintain. But the Zoo works diligently to ensure that all animals have a healthy life. They jump into action when an animal is sick or injured, using any means they can think of to keep these beautiful organisms flourishing to show the world. Their commitment to their animals is a wonderful testament to the lengths we will go to support our world, and I am so lucky that I was able to be part of that.