The small bundle of grey and brown speckled feathers turns slowly beneath the bright surgical lights at the Saint Louis Zoo’s veterinary hospital, its eyes sleepily gazing at the pastel pink cabinets filled with medical tools. The Eastern screech owl flutters her wings slightly and turns back to face the quarantine keeper, veterinary technician & vet who are bent over her softball-sized frame, seemingly unfazed by any of her surroundings.
“She’s so calm, my goodness,” laughs Kari Musgrave, veterinary resident at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Musgrave adjusts the stethoscope around her neck before leaning in to gently examine the owl’s wings, giving the zoo’s newest resident her full attention. She works carefully inside a spacious treatment room at the zoo’s Endangered Species Research Center & Veterinary Hospital to ensure the bird’s safety through the entire process. As Musgrave conducts an eye exam, her expert hands keep the owl relaxed.
The health and safety of each individual animal is always a top priority for the Saint Louis Zoo and for its skilled staff of medical professionals who monitor the facility’s 90 acres of wildlife exhibits. Like her teammates, Musgrave delivers world-class care to more than 17,000 exotic animals and 500 different species across the zoo’s expansive grounds—all while being trained as part of the next generation of leaders in veterinary medicine.
It’s no surprise that St. Louis is exactly where Musgrave wants to be for this stage of her career; the Saint Louis Zoo’s zoological medicine residency is one of the most coveted programs in the United States and only accepts new residents once every three years. Competition is extremely tight, so when Musgrave found out she was selected, she could barely contain her excitement.
“When they called me, I about burst into tears,” she recalls, smiling widely. “When I told other residents at other zoos, they were so happy for me. This residency is one of the biggest opportunities—if not the biggest opportunity—I’ve ever had to learn from wonderful mentors.”
Musgrave’s veterinary residency at the Saint Louis Zoo is part of a childhood dream come full circle. Originally from Bloomington, Indiana, she grew up raising rabbits and was a member of the local 4-H program for 10 years. Her first taste of zoological medicine came in undergrad during an internship at the Indianapolis Zoo. From there, she earned a doctor in veterinary medicine degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did an animal surgery and medicine internship at Oklahoma State University, completed a one-year internship in zoological medicine at the Phoenix Zoo and worked as a relief veterinarian at the Birmingham Zoo.
But working at the Saint Louis Zoo is something else entirely.
“We’re one of the only zoos that has a workforce development—we have a training program in here to help people. Everyone is a leader and they teach us how to be leaders—not just through work experience, but we have an actual training facility on the grounds,” she says.
With experience at so many different animal health and veterinary facilities around the country, Musgrave entered the residency at the Saint Louis Zoo with fresh eyes, and she could tell immediately that the zoo was a local treasure and a special part of the city’s fabric.
“When I started at the Saint Louis Zoo, I had never visited before,” she explains. “But the overwhelming sense of community amongst the staff, the sheer amount of our collection [of animals] and the conservation efforts that they have been able to forge ahead in the WildCare Institute and the Institute for Conservation Medicine is just mind boggling.”
“I just moved to St. Louis for this job, and seeing the impact that the Saint Louis Zoo has on the community is amazing,” Musgrave continues. “We all say that our zoo is the best, but having not come from St. Louis originally, I really see how special the Saint Louis Zoo is from an outside perspective.”
And with a steady string of national rankings in recent years, it’s safe to say plenty of people agree. The Saint Louis Zoo was ranked the third best zoo in the country in USA Today’s 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, having already snagged the number one spot in 2018 and 2017. Additionally, the zoo’s popular Judy and Jerry Kent Family Sea Lion Sound exhibit was awarded a third-place ranking in the 2019 “Best Zoo Exhibit” category, and the zoo’s holiday light experience landed a fourth-place ranking in the 2018 Readers’ Choice “Best Zoo Lights” category.
“We have a huge variety of animals. It’s a much larger zoo than I’ve ever been in before, but the people here are really what make it special,” Musgrave emphasizes. “We get to watch these animals from birth and care for them for the rest of their lives.”
Back in the zoo’s treatment room, the three members of the veterinary team watch as Musgrave gently rubs the Eastern screech owl’s head and chest, coaxing her awake. The left eye peels open first, and then the right, and Musgrave chuckles at the sight. It’s easy to imagine the veterinarian during high school giving the same sense of care, attention and wonder to the rabbits in her family’s backyard.
And now years later in St. Louis, she’s building a career that would make her younger self proud.
“I would tell my eight- or nine-year-old self that you’re going to make it and you’re going to get to work with the best people at one of the leading zoos in the country,” Musgrave declares. “And it’s going to live up to all of your hopes that you have as to how amazing it is to work with these species every day.”