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The Future of Zoos: Reflections on an Externship at the San Diego Zoo

By Katherine Zhou Rubinstein, Cornell DVM ‘23

Katherine Zhou performing a medical procedure on a polar bear
Performing an abdominal ultrasound on a polar bear.

I have met many conservationists who do not believe in keeping wildlife in captivity. However, the San Diego Zoo seems to win the hearts of both wildlife conservationists and those who work with captive wildlife. How does this zoo bridge the gap between the two? I was excited to be offered a month-long externship as a fourth-year Cornell veterinary student at the San Diego Zoo. With the generous support from the Cornell Wildlife Health Center (CWHC) Student Support Fund, I stayed in San Diego from April-May 2023, in hopes of finding answers to my question.

My Daily Activities

What first struck me about the San Diego Zoo was its size. Although I had an idea of the wide range of species at the zoo, the 40-minute bus tour on the first day changed my whole perspective. The animals ranged from poisonous dart frogs of a mere few grams to polar bears that weighed several hundred kilograms. They also had species rarely seen at zoos such as aardvarks, koalas and more.

Katherine Zhou Rubinstein with penguin
Drawing blood from an African penguin.

Due to the large number and diversity of species, a team of expert veterinarians and veterinary technicians is essential to ensure the health of the animals. Each day, I helped the technicians set up the exam tables before morning rounds. During rounds, the veterinarians, technicians and hospital keepers discussed the planned procedures for the day. For the rest of the morning, I shadowed one of the veterinarians when they examined animals that were brought to the hospital. Some veterinarians I worked with included Dr. Beth Bicknese, Dr. Matt Marinkovich (a fellow Cornell alum), zoological medicine fellow Dr. Kat Reed, and resident Dr. Melanie Peel. In addition, I worked closely with the amazing technicians (Brian, Marianne, Cathy, Krystal, and Christine, among others) who gave me the opportunity to practice my hands-on skills.

With their help, I successfully inserted an endotracheal tube into a klipspringer and a Cavendish dik-dik. I also drew blood from multiple bird species, including a bird-of-paradise and an African penguin, as well as from some mammals, including a polar bear and a koala. In the afternoons, I wrote medical records for the morning procedures I had participated in, or I joined the on-duty veterinarian for urgent care cases if any arose. Occasionally, the team would go out on grounds to perform procedures on animals in their enclosures.

Many of the animals I saw at the hospital were senior animals that needed check-ups. The number of senior animals at the zoo spoke to the excellent animal health care provided. This sparked my interest in finding ways to keep these geriatric animals comfortable when they needed veterinary interventions. At the end of my externship, with the help of my mentor Dr. Beth Bicknese, I analyzed all the feline necropsy reports at the San Diego Zoo for the past 22 years and gave a presentation on the findings. The wildlife care specialists at the presentation wanted to share the information with the rest of the team, which made my day, because I felt my project could actually help manage these old cats’ health and comfort.


After spending four weeks at the zoo, I found some answers to my questions. I believe the strong working relationship between the hospital team and the wildlife care specialists was the keystone for maintaining healthy animals at the zoo. The wildlife care specialists’ opinions were always respected by the veterinarians when discussing treatment plans. An emphasis on effective communication and earnest teamwork underpins the high-quality health care being provided to the zoo’s animals.

A koala receiving her preventative medicine examination
A koala receiving her preventative medicine examination.

Another reason why the San Diego Zoo is so renowned in wildlife conservation may be because its parent organization, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, is a non-profit organization. Everyone who visits the zoo can be reassured that money spent here eventually goes back to the animals locally or internationally. The San Diego Zoo also gives back to the public through educational programs emphasizing the importance of wildlife and inspiring action to protect wild species and their habitats. These programs also make conservation less daunting by offering ideas as to what people can do in their daily lives to help, such as limit the use of palm oil products.

To me, the San Diego Zoo represents the future of zoos, with a focus on breeding programs for nearly extinct wildlife, education of the public, and connecting people living in urban areas to nature. Some species I touched at San Diego Zoo are extinct in the wild, and many are dangerously close to extinction, all for the same reason: habitat loss due to human activities. Until we find a way to coexist with these beautiful species, zoos can in some cases provide safe havens. Zoos can help slow the speed of biodiversity loss, and even help species avoid extinction altogether.

During my time at the San Diego Zoo, I also had the opportunity to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for one day, which is also owned by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, but located outside of the city itself. The park features mostly African and Central Asian savanna and desert species. When I was there, the hospital team was preparing for a standing rhino procedure, as part of efforts to utilize assisted reproductive technologies to eventually increase the number of northern white rhinos, a subspecies that is down to just two animals in the world. There were multiple other programs like this. Animals born in the park are often later sent to other zoos, and sometimes reintroduced to the wild.

Although the San Diego Zoo has the advantage of size and reputation to help further wildlife conservation efforts, I believe all zoos should strive to maintain a high level of care for their animals. This will be one of my goals when I work with zoos and free-ranging wildlife in Asia in the future.

Katherine Zhou Rubinstein profile photo

Katherine Zhou Rubinstein, MCM, DVM, is a Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine graduate from the Class of 2023. She is from Shenzhen, China and is interested in international wildlife conservation and topics in One Health. Her career goal is to help wildlife conservation in China and other Asian countries.

All images provided by Katherine Zhou Rubinstein.

Please consider giving to the Cornell Wildlife Health Center Student Support Fund to help provide more hands-on experiential learning opportunities for students passionate about wildlife health and conservation.
Related programs: Zoological Medicine