Disc golfers playing on Druid Hill Park’s course sometimes toss their Frisbees accidentally over the Maryland Zoo’s perimeter fence. The discs land alongside a flat, understated red-brick building whose bland exterior contrasts with a fascinating interior. This is the Zoo’s Animal Hospital. Since 1984, it has been the hub of medical research and animal care for a wonderfully diverse array of wild patients, ranging from five-gram ruby-throated hummingbirds to five-hundred-pound lions.
Before the Animal Hospital was built, the Zoo’s veterinary staff worked out of a small sick ward in the basement of another Zoo building. Their move into the hospital afforded incredible new opportunities. The facility was equipped with a full surgical suite, an intensive care unit, separate wards for mammals, birds, and reptiles, as well as a quarantine ward, a veterinary laboratory, and a medical library. Today, the hospital also houses the Zoo’s Panamanian Golden Frog Conservation Center and its Animal Embassy, including an outdoor mews, where the program animals known as “Animal Ambassadors” live.
The Baltimore Zoological Society (BZS), a non-profit organization formed to support and ultimately manage the Zoo, first proposed an animal hospital in its 1976 Master Plan. It then took several years to secure the necessary funding. Dr. Torrey Brown, then Secretary of the State Department of Natural Resources and a board member of BZS, and Dr. John Strandberg, Director of Comparative Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, were instrumental in the effort. The Animal Hospital officially opened in January 1984 at a cost of $3.8 million that the State of Maryland funded with a grant.
From the beginning, the Zoo’s veterinary staff has worked closely with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. They have also collaborated with veterinary and human medicine experts to add depth to the Zoo’s medical program. A local dentist who volunteered his services to the Zoo recalled that “while doing a root canal for one of the Zoo’s medical staff, I was asked if I wanted to help out.” He went from never doing a root canal on an animal before to adapting his own equipment to the task to eventually becoming a member of the American Association of Veterinary Dentists.
The Animal Hospital has seen its fair share of extraordinary patients, too. There was the male Kodiak bear that broke the x-ray table under his massive weight. And the tiny golden frog that visited the O.R. to have an even tinier tumor removed. A bald eagle, found injured along the Gunpowder River, was treated for broken bones in its shoulder. That same eagle was released soon thereafter by then-President Bill Clinton at a 1996 ceremony marking the down-listing of bald eagles from endangered to threatened. More recently, an African penguin got a new lease on life after successful cataract surgery.
In addition to patient care, the Animal Hospital remains to this day an epicenter of important medical research, veterinary training, and ongoing wildlife conservation work that often involves partners such as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.