t’s a drizzly Tuesday in March in Sacramento, Calif., and about a dozen children from a local elementary school have their noses pressed against the viewing windows of the veterinary hospital at the city zoo to view a very rare species on the other side of the glass. Dr. Jenessa Tookey Gjeltema ’04 is doing an annual exam on a red panda, an endangered foxlike creature from the Himalayas named Takeo. But he’s not the really rare one.
Gjeltema is one of just 215 veterinarians in the world that the American College of Zoological Medicine has certified as an expert, which requires passing a grueling, two-day examination following years of study. As an assistant professor of zoological medicine at nearby University of California, Davis (the top veterinary school in the world), she does clinical work six months a year at the Sacramento Zoo, providing medical care for the 560 animals, from carnivores such as lions to amphibians like poison dart frogs.
“I love helping individual animals and the art of trying to figure out the appropriate treatments to help them thrive and become healthy,” she says. “But I also really love zoological medicine because I can contribute on a larger scale. By learning about different techniques or diseases that affect zoological species, I can potentially help with conservation efforts that may impact populations that are at risk of becoming extinct. It’s not just about helping an individual animal. It’s about helping to save all wildlife.”
For the latter, Gjeltema spends a good bulk of her time in the lab and in the wild doing research, but today she’s focused on working with individual animals at the zoo – and seeing her in action is a unique peek behind the scenes with a top zoological veterinarian. One of the qualities that has made her stand out in her field was her education at the College, which had nothing to do with pre-med or science (an Honors College and cum laude graduate, she was a triple major in philosophy, business administration and international business).
“There’s book smart and there’s street smart,” says the zoo’s hospital manager and senior vet tech Alison Mott. “She’s got it all rolled into one. She’s constantly learning and trying to provide the best possible care for animals in our collection, and she does that really, really well.”
The 14-acre zoo is tucked in between an elementary school and a park just south of downtown. Dressed in a dark blue vest with a “Sac Zoo” logo on it and a radio clipped to her chinos, Gjeltema is as present and pleasant as can be. She loves what she does, and it shows. There’s nothing typical about a typical day – except for the fact that they’re all 12 hours long.
“The good news is that every day is different,” she says. “It’s challenging. It’s exciting. I’m never doing the same thing twice.”
The first stop is the giraffe barn to examine a 20-year-old female named Goody, who has a front foot injury. Although the giraffes seem like gentle giants as they lean over to sniff the new visitors, their stomping can be deadly (just Google “giraffe killing lion”). Oftentimes, the keepers will maneuver the giraffes into a familiar chute where Gjeltema can perform treatments on their hoofs through a trap door near the floor. The chute is also where Gjeltema can sedate them and use straps to help them gently roll out through a side panel and onto the barn floor, where she can then perform procedures. Since the giraffes can’t really duck into the vet clinic, Gjeltema has to bring the hospital to them.
“They’re one of the more challenging animals to anesthetize,” she says, “just because they have such an incredibly different physiology relating to that really long neck.”
The schedule for the rest of her day would overwhelm most mortals, but purpose and joy can be powerful energizers. In addition to the red panda and a two-toed sloth that she will be giving full annual exams – which includes everything from teeth cleaning and blood work to sonograms and radiographs – Gjeltema also has 10 other animals, including a pair of fennec foxes, a gopher snake and a juvenile flamingo, to examine or treat.
Treating animals that don’t have a clue that you’re trying to help them requires a lot of ingenuity and problem solving, especially to avoid anesthetizing them (primates can be especially challenging to work with because of their intelligence). Just think of trying to diagnose and treat a hummingbird – or an elephant.
“There are very few tools that are designed for zoo animals specifically, so it can be very challenging,” says Gjeltema. “But it’s one of the things that drew me toward this profession as a whole, because it keeps you thinking, it keeps you learning, and you never get into a rut. You have to come up with ways to deliver medications or implement a treatment or diagnose an animal that maybe you haven’t even tried before.”
To figure what’s going on with the abnormal gait of a 4-year-old male bongo named Sukari, for instance, Gjeltema is having the zookeepers train him to get used to a radiograph. They do that by desensitizing him to the $80,000 machine’s presence by the front leg that seems to be bothering him.
“It’s brand new, so we want to make sure that we don’t damage it in the process. If he were to get scared or flighty and kick it, then we wouldn’t have it for all of our other patients’ important medical problems,” she says. “We need to make sure that he’s used to it, not only for the machine’s benefit, but for his, too.”
Training the animals to accept treatment is part of the process for the zoo staff. It took about a month of coaching Kamau, a 12-year-old lion, to enter a small chute inside the holding pen in the back of his outdoor enclosure so Gjeltema could safely examine (and then treat) a wound on the tip of his tail (it’s not easy to get up close and personal with the king of the jungle).
First, using the lure of “meatsickles,” frozen chunks of red meat, they got him comfortable with crawling into the small enclosure and sitting down on his belly. Next came getting him used to someone touching his tail and moving it outside the enclosure for treatment – all of which was completely voluntary on Kamau’s part.
“We never locked him in there,” says Gjeltema. “There were occasions, especially starting out, where he wasn’t quite sure about the situation and wanted to leave, but after a while he definitely gained a lot of trust and allowed us to do longer sessions with his tail the more he got used to it.”
“Don’t look them in the eye,” she tells observers during one of her twice-weekly treatments – also referring to Kamau’s mate, Cleo, in an adjoining holding room. It’s startling, however, to come within a few feet of a 300-pound feline with her eyes locked intently on you, while Kamau, who weighs more than 400 pounds, rears up on his hind legs and lets out a roar. The zookeeper then lures Kamau into the chute and pushes the meatsickles underneath the bars with a backscratcher right in front of his mouth, while, at the other end, Gjeltema disinfects the wound, trims away fur and even does laser therapy to help the tissue regenerate before applying a new bandage.
The wound is healing nicely. The only drawback is he’s gained some weight from all the treats. “He’s just really into his meat,” says Gjeltema with a chuckle, “so we had to kind of revise his diet a little bit to make sure he didn’t get extra plump while we were treating his tail.”
Kamau is also trained to stand up on his hind legs and put his paws on the front of the enclosure so that Gjeltema can inspect or treat his paw pads and nails and even get a quick look into his mouth before tossing in a meatball. All of it is done safely from the outside of the enclosure with everyone being very cautious as they make those evaluations or perform treatments.
“In general, we don’t put our fingers or hands into an enclosure with an animal that could eat your fingers off,” she says, noting that she has never had any close calls. “And I don’t plan to, but it’s something we always prepare for and we always think about whenever I’m working with an animal that’s potentially dangerous. We have special protocols that we use to keep us safe. We just try to respect the nature of these animals and not push the limits with what we can do safely.”
One of the most precarious situations is having to anesthetize an animal like Kamau, who is trained to hold still and allow a hand injection in his rear from outside the enclosure. But it’s a judgment call as to when it’s safe to enter and begin monitoring the effect of the anesthetic and start the procedure.
“It can be tricky,” says Gjeltema. “That’s one of the situations that’s probably the scariest. You need to make the call about whether it’s safe, and that really rests on the zoo vet’s shoulders, so that definitely can be a little intense.”
Sometimes the only way to safely administer anesthesia is with a dart, so Gjeltema is adept at that, too, and regularly does target practice after hours in the zoo’s parking lot with different types of drug-projectile devices, which include dart pistols, long-range dart rifles and even blow darts.
“I’ve got a very good aim,” she says. “It’s an incredibly important part of a zoological veterinarian’s job. You need to be well versed on how to use all of these tools to make sure that you’re doing it as safely as possible because you don’t want to hit the wrong area of the animal. You want to make sure that the dart gets well into the tissue, because, if they’re only half anesthetized, they could really do themselves a lot of damage.”
Gjeltema was in middle school when one of her teachers had the students write their future selves a letter, which the teacher mailed to them years later. Gjeltema was actually confused at first when she opened the letter in 2010 and thought it was some kind of joke because she didn’t remember writing it. After some typical adolescent comments about boys in her class, she asked herself in the letter, “Are you a vet yet?” Gjeltema smiled when she read that and thought about how she had come full circle – back to the profession that she was so interested in as a child after a little bit of a left turn at the College.
The second oldest of two sons and two daughters of an analytical chemist for Hewlett-Packard and a stay-at-home mom, Gjeltema (née Tookey) grew up in rural Oak Ridge, N.C., outside Greensboro. Home-schooled when she was younger, and “super motivated,” Gjeltema would wake up at 4 a.m. and get all her classwork done by 8, so she could spend the rest of the day in the woods that surrounded the home. She was a tomboy who shared a love of nature with her siblings.
“There were more trees than people, so we would end up hanging out as a group, the four of us,” says her younger brother, David, a systems architect at a residential engineering firm in Raleigh. “We spent a lot of time just roving around the woods. We didn’t have any cable or internet, so it was almost like a feral upbringing in a way. Our parents treated us surprisingly ‘adultish.’ I blew through the home-school curriculum like Jenessa did and everything after that, they were like, ‘What are you interested in?’ We had a lot of agency growing up.”
Many a misty morning, after feeding the neighbor’s horses that would pop their heads over the adjoining fence, they would stalk animals, like deer and wild turkey, in the woods, but just to watch them – not to hunt them, although Gjeltema would occasionally catch an animal to study it.
“It was an incredible sort of experience to grow up like that,” she says. “It really encouraged me to develop skills and self-motivation for moving myself forward. It also exposed me to some of the things I most enjoy about wildlife and seeing animals in their natural environments.”
But after attending high school at Salem Academy, the oldest girls’ school in the nation in Winston-Salem, Gjeltema had a change of mind (definitely not of heart) about becoming a vet by the time she became part of the Honors College at CofC. “It’s just not practical or realistic,” she would tell herself. But sometimes detours can have unexpected benefits. Although her route to becoming a vet might have been more circuitous than others, her experience at the College was instrumental in her development as one of the world’s top zoological vets.
The College was just far enough away from home that Gjeltema felt on her own, yet the city, school and campus were so comfortable, they made her feel right at home and set her up for success as a triple major in philosophy, business administration and international business.
“The lessons I learned there – how to be a good person, how to study, how to engage myself in the learning process – have really helped me throughout the rest of my career,” she says. “I learned a lot from my classes that I still apply every single day on the job, helping me manage my technicians, plan procedures and budgets, and develop programs for the students I work with here at the Sacramento Zoo. I’m super happy about how I spent my time and what I studied at the College of Charleston.”
As her four years at the College were winding down and she began looking for work, she decided to pay a visit to the Career Center for advice and help with interviews. But, after a practice interview, Gjeltema was a little taken aback when the counselor said, “I’ve only known you for about 45 minutes, but I really think that you might want to reevaluate the path that you’re on and the direction of your life.”
“What do you mean?” Gjeltema responded.
“Well,” the counselor said, “when you talk about business, the answers are well-thought-out and clearly communicated, but when I asked you about your experiences working with animals, you just came alive. Your face lit up, and I could see your passion. I would strongly consider investigating what you really want to do with your life.”
So she did, and it’s why she’s now sitting in the examination room at the Sacramento Zoo talking animatedly about her career as a zoological vet instead of in a boardroom talking perfunctorily about her career as a corporate executive.
“I decided to follow my passion and follow my heart and just dedicate my life to what I care about the most,” she says. “Her comment to me really changed the course of my life in a way that I didn’t expect, and she probably doesn’t even know about it.”
With her sights set on becoming a vet, Gjeltema moved back to Greensboro to take prerequisite courses at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and volunteer at different facilities, including the renowned North Carolina Zoo, where she racked up so many hours as a gopher and cleaner upper, she was named Volunteer of the Year.
“It’s not uncommon to have people volunteering in an effort to get experience to pad their vet school résumé,” says Dr. Ryan De Voe, who was the senior veterinarian at the zoo then, as well as when she returned later for her residency. “You see them come and go, and a lot of them don’t stick out very much, but she did, especially after I found out about her background. ‘You majored in what? That’s fantastic!’ Some of the more thoughtful, creative and innovative veterinarians are those who did not fast-track it all the way through.”
She really opened his eyes to resident applicants whose college majors weren’t necessarily science-focused. “People will ask, ‘How does that help them become a veterinarian or a scientist?’ I think if you have to ask that question, you don’t quite get how the world works and where big strides are made. People reach the top of their game when you have a wider breadth of understanding of the world and think about things a little bit off the beaten path.”
One of the best vet schools in the world, NC State, just happens to be in nearby Raleigh. It also has a fantastic zoological program that allows for hands-on experience.
After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2011, Gjeltema did a year-long internship at Coral Springs Animal Hospital in South Florida before returning to NC State for her three-year residency, an extremely competitive program that includes clinical work at the North Carolina Zoo and North Carolina Aquarium.
“We were well aware of her work ethic and intelligence, so when she applied for our residency, we snapped her up,” says Dr. Michael Stoskopf, the head of the residency program, who was also one of her professors during vet school. “She basically out-competed everybody else in the world who was interested in that one position. She’s a very focused, can-do person who’s capable of really complex thinking, which is important in managing both the clinical and research aspects of zoological medicine.
“We like to joke that you have all these species-based specialties – bovine, equine and dog and cat – but we in zoological do the rest of the world,” he adds. “You really have to be able to dig into the literature, to think when there’s no long-established precedent on how to accomplish something, and she’s good at that. She’s a credit to the profession and a major asset for the world.”
It might seem intimidating to be around someone with such an impressive intellect, but, with Gjeltema, that’s not the case at all.
“She’s very humble,” says her brother David. “Talking with her is very enjoyable because it’s rare to speak with someone who has that level of mastery and smarts about them, but it can make Thanksgiving dinners challenging. If she asks me what’s going on with work, I’ll say something like, ‘I made a device that runs in a millisecond run in .9 milliseconds,’ and she’s like, ‘That’s cool. I did surgery on a lionfish.’ How do you even do that? Do you put on scuba gear? Do they have a little respirator for the fish? So, trading stories with her about work is not great around family functions, but she’ll never rub it in your face.”
After completing her residency in 2015, Gjeltema moved to Sacramento to take a temporary teaching position at UC Davis, which turned into a permanent position after the school realized what an asset she was. Of course, given her drive, being just one of two zoological medicine faculty members at the world’s best veterinary school while doing clinical work at the Sacramento Zoo wasn’t enough. She had one more mountain to climb: becoming a diplomate of the American College of Zoological Veterinarians. Since there are some 6 million species in the world, the two-day exam, which is only offered once a year, covers an insane amount of information. Vets spend years studying the two dozen textbooks and eight–10 journals, with many failing (the pass rate is low).
Moreover, the board certification isn’t required to be a zoological vet, so why do it?
“When I was sighting my career path, I wasn’t just shooting for becoming a zoo vet,” says Gjeltema. “I shot for the highest level of achievement and expertise in my field so that I could be in the best position to help our animals that are endangered in this sixth mass extinction, which has resulted in the loss of about 50 percent of our wildlife over the last 40 years. I wanted to shoot for the stars, and if I fell short, then so be it. I’m very glad that I did it because for certain kinds of responsibilities in conservation research and leadership in the zoological medicine community, having that extra qualification makes it a little bit easier to move forward on projects that can be impactful.”
There have been more than a few times in her career when Gjeltema has taken care of an animal whose species is on the verge of extinction – like the Puerto Rican crested toad, red wolf, golden Panamanian frog or Bali mynah bird – and it really affects her.
“It was right there in my hands, and it was up to me to try to help save it,” she says of her experience treating one of these critically endangered animals with only a handful left in the world. “It can be a little intimidating and sad, too. I wish I could say that was the only time that happened, but it happens more than I would like to admit. I just can’t stand by and not try to be part of the solution. It’s what I want to dedicate my entire life to.”
Which is why Gjeltema enjoys spending weekends doing research, like her current project on evaluating the health effects of microplastics in the environment. But hours are only long if you don’t like what you’re doing. As the oft-quoted aphorism goes, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work again.”
“After I had that visit to the Career Center at the College, I was really trying to wrack my brain, do some hard thinking about what it is I wanted for my life,” she says. “And I stumbled upon this question: If you had billions of dollars and you didn’t have a care in the world as far as money goes, what would you do with your time? And maybe I would sit on a beach for a few weeks sipping pretty drinks, but after a while that would probably get very boring. I decided if I were rich that I would do zoological medicine for fun. When I came to this realization, it really made it clear that I don’t have to be a billionaire to actually do that.
“People are kind of surprised by the time that I spend doing what I do, but it doesn’t feel like work to me,” she adds. “It’s my life, and it’s what I would prefer to be doing all the time anyway. I love it. Occasionally I do get tired and I do what I need to do to take care of myself. But I just feel so lucky to wake up every day and be able to do what I’m doing. I’m excited to go to work in the morning rather than fighting my alarm.”
Photos by Mike Ledford