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Cornell University

Alumni Spotlight: Matt Marinkovich, DVM ‘14, San Diego Zoo

Matt Marinkovich with turtle

Dr. Matt Marinkovich always had a passion for wildlife but was initially unsure as to what career path might suit him best. “I always knew I wanted to do something with wildlife or something conservation related, but it took a little while to find what that niche was, whether getting a PhD or going to vet school. I had a couple of experiences at SeaWorld San Diego when I was an undergrad, and at the National History Museum in Santa Barbara working with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network that led me to really feel like veterinary medicine was the route to go.” After taking three gap years, he began his time at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, going on to complete his DVM in 2014.

Dr. Marinkovich is quick to acknowledge the role that Cornell played in his success, recalling formative moments like an Expanding Horizons experience with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and praising the faculty he worked with as a student. “You have people there who are really quality professors, but also really quality people and really good mentors. I think I learned a ton from them both from an academic standpoint and also what it means to be a good clinician.”

His experiences at Cornell have largely shaped his approach to clinical practice. “There are still a million things that I don’t know. I’m still surprised every day and challenged every day which is one of the reasons I love wildlife medicine. But in vet school you really develop that approach to cases and that approach to working with others and being part of a team.” Asked what Cornell courses he suggests, Dr. Marinkovich recommends casting a wide net. “The nice part about being a student interested in zoo or wildlife is that everything is applicable. There’s no class and no species that isn’t applicable to your potential future profession. I just tried to soak up as much as I could and be a sponge as much as I could.”

“There are so many really interesting and fulfilling ways to be a veterinarian involved with wildlife and conservation. A lot of those opportunities may not have all been fully explored or fleshed out yet, so the sky’s the limit if you are passionate about something."

After graduation from vet school, Dr. Marinkovich completed rotating small animal and emergency and critical care specialty internships, both at the Animal Medical Center, before matching with the UC Davis / San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance / Sea World Zoo Residency. After completing his residency in 2019, he began his current position working as a clinical veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo. The work is just as exciting as it sounds! “My dream was to end up at a place like San Diego Zoo, which has a very high-volume clinical case load. We have tons of animals and we provide very high level care to all of the wildlife in our care.” A highlight of the position, he says, is the ability to apply teamwork to particularly challenging cases, as the zoo currently has six veterinarians, a fellow, and a resident.

While the medical care of the zoo’s animals takes up the bulk of his time, Dr. Marinkovich also has the opportunity to help support international conservation efforts. “The San Diego Zoo is very involved with Hawaiian forest bird conservation and we have facilities in Maui and the Big Island. I’ve been out there several times to provide medical treatment for the animals in our care out there. I went to Madagascar when I was a resident to help provide emergency medical care to tortoises from a recent confiscation.”

Today his favorite cases are usually the ones that demand the most time, facilitating a personal connection. Dr. Marinkovich recalls treating a ring-tailed lemur as a resident and the fulfillment he felt nursing the individual back to health. “That’s an animal that I’ll still go and visit at the zoo years later.” On another occasion, he worked alongside radiologists and human respiratory specialists to diagnose and treat bronchomalacia in an adult male orangutan. “Cases like that, where we’re alerted to a problem, we diagnose the source of the problem, and we develop novel ways to fix that problem, especially in a species that is important to us and to the greater conservation world, are really exciting and really valuable.” 

Matt Marinkovich treating a rhino

While well aware that the field of zoological medicine is competitive, Dr. Marinkovich has a refreshing viewpoint. “I think really just focusing on becoming the best vet you can be is the number one step. I think what we look for in terms of a good resident is someone who has a really good foundation in veterinary medicine, and a background that involves all species. The next time you have to help pull a calf, it may be an exotic bovid rather than a dairy cow.”

His perspective, he says, is largely informed by his respect for the importance of mental health. “I’m a huge proponent of mental health and being happy with what you’re doing and enjoying each step of the journey. I think you need to take each step and try to get the most out of each experience for what it is. It’s great if a zoo residency or working a zoo job works out, but if not, being a vet is an awesome job and you still have that to be fulfilled by. You have to try to not let the quest for that elusive zoo resident position be the end all and be all of what it means to be fulfilled in this field. Developing your skill sets, really focusing on your own mental health, and who you are as a vet and as a person is going to set you up for success.”

Regardless of one’s exact career trajectory, Dr. Marinkovich emphasizes the abundant opportunities to contribute to conservation and the health of wildlife species. “There are so many really interesting and fulfilling ways to be a veterinarian involved with wildlife and conservation. A lot of those opportunities may not have all been fully explored or fleshed out yet, so the sky’s the limit if you are passionate about something. I think our field will be better off because of that. There is an increasing need for people who have a skill set and a passion for the world around them and the wildlife that’s in it. It is a daunting time for people who are passionate about wildlife, but there are a lot of opportunities to find your niche and the way that you are going to make your mark."

Written by Colleen Sorge ’20, DVM ’24

All images provided by Matt Marinkovich.

This article was originally published on the Cornell veterinary student-run WildLIFE blog.

Related programs: Zoological Medicine