As a Clinical Veterinarian for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, Daniel Fredholm Treats All Creatures Great and Small
Alum says caring for a variety of wild animals—from hamsters to elephants—requires training, experience, and lots of patience
It’s the first week of the new year and Jethro is already back in the hospital.
A regular visitor to the facility, Jethro leisurely paces around his airy room and picks at the snacks left out for him: today it’s eucalyptus branches, one of his favorites. If he gets tired of his snack, all a staffer has to do is pop across the street to the browse farm and snip a few branches from a different tree for the notoriously picky eater (willow is also on his acceptable list). Later, a doctor will examine Jethro from snout to tail.
Oh, right: Jethro is a babirusa, a tusked relative of the wild pig found only in Indonesia. And his hospital? The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Paul Harter Veterinary Medical Center, where he is one of the thousands of exotic patients that patronize its halls and stalls.
On this visit to the medical center, which is at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, Calif., Jethro’s doctor will take a look at the ulcers forming on his hooves and change the caps attached to his toenails weekly. Because babirusas have only three toes per hoof on which to carry their weight (which can run up around 220 pounds), this member of the swine family easily forms ulcers and abrasions. They’re also finicky for herbivores; their diet mainly consists of leaves and shrubs instead of grasses. “Babirusas are browsers, not grazers,” says Daniel “Dr. Dan” Fredholm (CAS’04, Sargent’05), a clinical veterinarian for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and one of Jethro’s regular doctors. “They’re all selective about the branches they eat.”
That’s just one of the thousands of wild-animal factoids Fredholm has picked up in the past decade of studying zoological medicine. (Initially, he’d planned on studying human medicine; Fredholm was starting down a path toward medical school at Boston University until a summer job at a veterinary clinic changed his mind.) Prior to his almost two-year stint at the San Diego Wildlife Zoo Alliance—a nonprofit that represents the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park in Escondido (where he works), and a handful of research and conservation facilities on the two campuses—Fredholm spent six years as a clinical veterinarian for the inhabitants of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and EPCOT theme park in Florida. While that gig earned him a stint on the Disney+ series Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it also reinforced his choice of specialty.
It’s where my love of variety comes into play…. The idea of truly treating all creatures big and small always spoke to me.
“It’s where my love of variety comes into play,” he says. “Without exaggerating, I can go from an appointment where I’m looking at a hamster in the palm of my hand, and then 30 minutes later go on a field visit to look at an elephant. The idea of truly treating all creatures big and small always spoke to me.”
Plus, there are broader benefits to the work he and his colleagues do for their patients. “We learn a little more about them here so we can better protect members of their species out in the wild,” Fredholm says. “The concept of being able to work with and potentially benefit whole species was very attractive; it felt like there was a lot of meaning to the job. One day when I leave this earth, I’ll be able to say, ‘Okay, I know I made a positive difference.’”
There’s perhaps no better example than the Wildlife Alliance’s northern white rhino conservation project, an international collaboration of zoological facilities with an HQ at the Safari Park. (Northern white rhinos are functionally extinct, as there are no males left in the species.) Six South African white rhino females and two youngsters call the habitat, the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, home. The goal is to crossbreed the southern ladies with their northern counterparts by artificially inseminating them with the northern white rhino genetic material stored at the Wildlife Alliance’s Frozen Zoo. It’s an incredibly long and involved process that will likely take decades, says Jill Van Kempen, one of the animal keepers and researchers working on the project.
But that’s a long-term project. Back at the medical center’s hoofstock facility, Jethro snacks on clusters of grapes dropped off by a sympathetic staffer. (“We try not to have favorite patients, but…” Fredholm shrugs.) Today, the row of stalls—which have doors on metal tracks for customizing a room for patients of any size—also contains a common eland (an antelope species) with an eye laceration and an okapi (a relative of giraffes) in need of a hoof trim. Among patients elsewhere in the hospital: a serval with a broken leg and a vulture that hasn’t been eating right. Preparations have also been underway to bring
in a male sitatunga from the park; a naturally shy animal, the African antelope peers skeptically out from the transport trailer before taking his time ambling into the waiting stall.
The number one skill needed to work with wildlife?
“Patience,” Fredholm says.
The San Diego Park Is More Safari than Zoo
THE SAFARI PARK comprises 1,800 acres in the heart of wine country in Escondido, about a 40-minute drive north from San Diego. Nine hundred acres are reserved for the 300 species and nearly 3,600 animals that reside in the park, African elephants, cranes, kangaroos and wallabies, lions, and ostriches included. Here, the vibe is decidedly more safari than zoo—much of the park is set up to mimic the African savanna, where pack animals commingle and have free range of the plains. (The Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo are also certified botanical gardens; the park employs a massive horticultural team to tend to the exhibits and the gardens, a mix of native and imported plantings.)
The effect is spectacular: as safari carts carrying staff and visitors wind along the park’s roads, giraffes lumber from sunny spots to shade, herds of Arabian oryx race gracefully under the California sun, and pelicans swoop overhead, taking their pick of ponds to settle by. Inside the park’s enclosed exhibits, Sumatran tigers yawn by a roaring waterfall, a pair of platypuses—the only two in the United States outside of Australia—swim industriously around their tank, and gorillas groom each other fastidiously.
The Safari Park also employs 50 or so friendly ambassador animals, well-trained wildlife trotted out for educational purposes and events that promote human-animal goodwill. Among their ranks: a cheetah, a kangaroo, and an echidna (a cousin of the platypus). They live in an enclosure in a secluded area of the park, where staff work closely with them to practice socializing.
Taking it all in, it’s easy to understand why Fredholm calls this gig his dream job. The animals he’s developed a painstaking rapport with make endlessly fascinating patients.
Most of his days are spent tending to them in the Safari Park hospital. Their myriad needs keep him busy: a day’s rounds could include anything from basic checkups to amputating the broken toe of a kori bustard, the largest African flying bird. That could be followed by a visit to the hoofstock facility to give its inhabitants hoof trims. Or, he could spend all day making field visits, checking in on larger patients like the mom-and-daughter duos at
the Rhino Rescue Center. Most days, he says, he and his colleagues wrap up by taking a peek at their patients’ lab work to ensure that everything looks normal.
It can be an unpredictable job, Fredholm acknowledges. While the majority of the care he and his colleagues provide is routine, emergencies do happen. Birth or surgery complications, serious wounds—there are a litany of reasons a vet could receive an after-hours call to return to the facilities.
Then there’s the matter of working with wild animals themselves. As Fredholm relates, a longtime veterinary refrain goes, “Every large-animal vet is one kick away from becoming a small-animal vet.” That’s where training and experience come in. Developing a familiarity with an animal’s behavior patterns is critical to detecting signs of irritation or stress. Some patients are easier than others: white rhinos, or “the Labrador retrievers of the rhino world,” as Fredholm calls them, will almost always let you pet or examine them in exchange for snacks.
The hardest part of the job, however, is probably the uncertainty. While plenty of veterinary literature exists on cats, dogs, and other domestic animals, the same can’t be said for, say, a penguin or a zebra. As a zoo vet, you’re always having to extrapolate based on information available about other species, Fredholm says. For example, the pain medicines that work for dogs are likely to translate to wolves, and zebras have remarkably similar gastrointestinal tracts to rabbits (yes, really).
Treating such a wide variety of animals requires not only a daunting amount of general knowledge, but also the ability to think on your feet and trust your gut. “You have to be able to use what you know and then trailblaze,” Fredholm explains. “You’re constantly on the leading edge of research and development in zoo medicine—it’s kind of exciting.”
The Wildlife Alliance’s Commitment to Animals and Conservation
It’s abundantly clear how much passion Fredholm has for his work. Looking back on his career trajectory, he is amazed he didn’t choose veterinary medicine sooner. “I entered Boston University on the premed track wanting to do human medicine,” he recalls.
A summer position as a kennel assistant in a Long Island vet clinic between his sophomore and junior years set him on his path. After receiving
a bachelor’s in biology, then a master’s in anatomy and physiology from BU, Fredholm went on to earn a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Canada’s University of Prince Edward Island. He spent several years honing his skills through zoological residencies and internships at reputable US universities. His career, he notes, has placed him in institutions across every time zone in the continental United States.
The Wildlife Alliance just might be his favorite, however. “The hospital here is awesome. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s probably the best in the country, if not the world,” Fredholm says.
And it’s not just the animals that keep him engaged (even though Jethro is definitely a contender for staff favorite). “The people are what really make a zoological institution,” he says. “Everyone else is as committed and passionate as you are.”
Ultimately, he hopes that passion means something. “If I can inspire someone to go out and care more about animals and specifically about conservation, that would be enough,” he says. “If even one person who hears my story goes out and, I don’t know, recycles more, everything I’ve worked for will be totally worth it.”