The veterinary facility at Oakland Zoo was once so small and cramped that during one surgery, senior veterinary technician Maria Trenary had to crawl under an operating table, navigating beneath the dangling limbs of an anesthetized tiger, just to get to the other side of the room and continue working.
Now, at the zoo’s new veterinary hospital, which celebrated its grand opening Thursday afternoon, a camel, a bison or even a juvenile giraffe can be easily accommodated in one of the hospital’s revamped surgery suites.
“A veterinary hospital for a zoo is a unique building type,” said Alyson Yarus, senior associate at Noll & Tam Architects and Planners, the firm behind the redesign. “It’s invented fresh each time.”
The new $10.8 million, 17,000 square foot facility is an upgrade from the zoo’s most recent veterinary clinic, a 51-year-old space measuring just 1,200 square feet.
“This really ups our levels and quality of animal care,” said Rachel Wells, a registered veterinary technician at Oakland Zoo, gesturing to a hallway lined with new holding areas for the animals. “We’ll be able to actually bring some of our animals physically into an area, where a lot of the times as of now we have to go to the animal and go into their night houses or something like that to be able to work on them.”
Some of the hospital’s newest improvements include exam and surgery rooms individually tailored for large and small species. There are also animal holding rooms designed specifically for the needs of hoofed animals—like gazelles, zebras and camels. These types of animals are flighty and prone to agitation, Trenary said, so their holding cells have more visual barriers to keep them calm. A holding cell for a chimpanzee on the other hand, might provide them with access to skylights, because they’re less skittish and more curious creatures. Even the size and strength of the cell’s fencing varies from animal to animal. “We don’t want to put a chimp in a cell where it can rip the fencing right off,” Trenary said.
There’s also an indoor pool for animals like otters, a heated and covered aviary, and climate-and-humidity-controlled rooms for reptiles. Before the advent for the new center, “there was a little bit of jerry-rigging involved” to create conditions for the best interests of the animals, Trenary said. To accommodate reptilian patients for example, Trenary and her team had to experiment with different combinations of temperatures and humidity levels using heat lamps and humidifiers.
Because of space and equipment constraints, the Oakland Zoo veterinary staff once had to transport animal patients between centers like veterinary facilities at the University of California, Davis. Now the new building presents greater opportunities to care for the nearly 100 different species and more than 600 animals currently housed on the zoo grounds without having to outsource to as many outside facilities for care. The hospital still plans to work closely in partnership with UC Davis, though. For procedures like root canals, for example, the zoo’s veterinary staff may still call in animal dentistry experts from the university, Trenary said.
The completed hospital renovations mark the end of part one of a $72 million, 56-acre upgrade. Next in the works for the Oakland Zoo is the California Trail project, an expansion into the hills of Knowland Park that will include more than 30 acres of open space habitat and over 20 acres of new exhibits showcasing regional and threatened species like California condors, mountain lions and grizzly bears. It will also feature an overnight camping area for organized camps and an elaborate aerial gondola system that will cart visitors into the hilltop to see the exhibit.
Plans for the Trail project have been controversial since its inception, as local environmental groups argue that construction is threatening native and threatened plant species and their habitat, like the Alameda whipsnake, which is classified as a threatened species.
The Oakland City Council first approved plans to expand the zoo in June 2011, after years of back and forth negotiations and environmental reviews. In opposition to the approved expansion plans, Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) tried to enact a three-week suspension of the project, a request that was later squelched by an Alameda County Superior Court judge.
The proposed development site is located in the “heart of the park right next to extremely sensitive habitat,” including old-growth native prairie grasses, argues Laura Baker, conservation chair of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. “The veterinary hospital is a good thing,” she said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “It allows the zoo to keep its accreditation to provide for the animals that are there. We are very much opposed to the rest of the expansion.”
The California Trail project is currently still in the planning and fundraising stages, Yarus said, and it is expected to be completed in 2015.
For now, the veterinary team at Oakland Zoo is organizing and setting up the last of the medical equipment before its first patients are brought in, which may be as early as next week, said Joel Parrott, president and CEO of Oakland Zoo.
The veterinary team was adept at handling smaller animals in the past, but the new facility opens up a window of new opportunities for care. “Now, we can actually hold a bison in the veterinary hospital, and that’s a big animal to be able to hold in a hospital,” Parrott said. “To be able to go from that to chimpanzees, who are very powerful, or to tigers who are also powerful, or to grizzly bears, who could tear the place up—we now have the ability at the hospital to hold them. It has a much bigger breadth.”
Correction: This article was updated to correctly identify the correct date in which the Oakland City Council approved expansion plans for Oakland Zoo.