Nashville, TN (WSMV) – After seven years of planning, designing and constructing, the new HCA Healthcare Veterinary Center opened in Spring 2019 at Nashville Zoo. There was a team of women behind the project and one woman who led the charge.
“We just really feel like the thought and the time that we took to put this together on the forefront really paid off in the end,” says Dr. Heather Robertson, Nashville Zoo’s Director of Veterinarian Services and of the main design creators and researchers during the construction of the new facility.
Robertson leads a team of eight women who work in the new 23,000-square-foot Veterinary Center. She is credited with spearheading the effort to build the new, state-of-the-art facility.
“It’s something we knew we needed and worked on for years, so to have it actually come to fruition and be able to show all of our guests now what we do has just been tremendous,” says Robertson.
“It’s a passion”
Robertson received her Bachelor of Science from MTSU and began her career as a keeper at the Nashville Zoo in 2001. At the time, she took care of the birds – flamingos, golden eagles, bald eagles, pelicans and many others. After leaving the zoo and attending veterinary school at UT-Knoxville, she returned in 2010 as a full-time veterinarian associate. Robertson was promoted to Director in 2012.
“My whole life I’ve just had this insane passion for animals,” says Robertson who is a mom to an 11-year old daughter – as well as four dogs, two birds, a cat and a fish. “For me, I feel like this is what I was meant to do. I love doing it and can’t see doing anything else. It’s a passion.”
Nashville Zoo has a prolific clouded leopard breeding program, thanks to Robertson. More than 31 cubs from 18 litters have been born at the zoo since 2009. With the help of Dr. Robertson, the Zoo has partnered with other zoos around the world to develop collaborative breeding programs and field monitoring projects for clouded leopards in Thailand.
Under Dr. Robertson and veterinarians from National Zoo in Washington D.C., Nashville Zoo was the first zoo to have a successful clouded leopard birth via artificial insemination with frozen/thawed semen.
“I love everything about [clouded leopards]” remarked Robertson. “They’re very unique and unlike any other cat species we work with.”
Some of the clouded leopard cubs born over the years in Nashville have needed intense care and Robertson has taken them home to administer early-morning 2am feeds.
“Some of those nights can be long, but it’s rewarding and its fun.”
Robertson is so passionate about animals, she expressed her dream vacation would be to work with animals in the wild.
"There’s just nothing better than to be able to work on these animals here and then actually take that knowledge that you’ve gained and go work on them where they live in nature,” says Robertson. “That’s kind of the epitome for our careers.”
Dr. Robertson is a veterinary pharmacy adjunct professor at Belmont, sits on the One Health Board for the state of Tennessee and sits on the Board for Volunteer State Community College Veterinary Technician Program.
“A lot of zoos don’t do this”
The new Veterinary Center was designed by a team of architects at ESa (Earl Swensson Associates), in Nashville. The project was seven years in the making, which included five years of planning and design and two years to build.
The center allows visitors to watch the veterinary team administer routine preventative healthcare for the animals, which includes dental health, vaccines, full physicals and exams from a covered observation deck with very large windows. The deck has tiered seating that can accommodate up to 200 people as they watch surgeries and routine check-ups.
“This is unusual and a lot of zoos don’t do this,” says Robertson, who visited thirteen zoos with her staff and their team of architects to find the best technology and design ideas for the center.
Robertson says only a few zoos in the country have opened veterinary operations to the public for visitors to see.
“We wanted to be a glass house,” says Robertson. “We wanted people to understand what zoos are about and it's more than just coming to see an animal on exhibit.”
The Nashville Zoo will be hosting the 2020 American Association of Zoo Veterinarians conference from September 19-25, 2020 where colleagues from zoos around the country will be visit the center for the first time.
“A lot of zoos have said ‘we don’t want our staff going to the conference to see what you’ve done because they’ll want [a center like this], too,’” laughed Robertson.
The new vet center replaced a 30-year old facility originally designed for a much smaller wildlife park and was only 2,500 square feet in size. The new facility is nearly ten times larger and houses a pharmacy, a lab, an operating room to accommodate large animals up to 2,000 pounds, quarantine rooms and sleeping rooms for staff among other things.
“We're here to do research, the best medicine, to understand the species and to educate the public about them and why they're important,” says Robertson. “We hope [this facility] inspires the next generation of veterinarians and conservationists.”
“You don’t have to choose”
When News4 asked Dr. Robertson what was next for her, she expressed a hopeful plan to hire a third veterinarian. Currently, just two vets staff the zoo seven days a week. The addition of a third vet would allow Dr. Robertson to do more research to be published – a prospect that isn’t currently possible with her day-to-day responsibilities at the zoo.
She insists her work is fulfilling and says she hopes it teaches her 11-year old daughter a special lesson.
“You don’t have to choose, right? You can have your family, you can have a career, do the things that you love and kinda pull it all together,” says Robertson. “I hope she sees she can do whatever she wants to do.”
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