Doctor Tom Colville has his dream job. He is the attending veterinarian at the Red River Zoo. “I do my best to keep our animals healthy. That includes preventive procedures like administering vaccinations, examining animals that are ill or injured, treating the animals the best we can with what’s available to us, and keeping records on what we do medically so we can learn from past events,” says Dr. Tom, as the staff calls him.
Dr. Tom has always loved working with all kinds of animals. He started his veterinary career working in private practices in Louisiana and Virginia. While practicing in Virginia, he volunteered at the National Zoo. “It was great fun for me. I got to work with a variety of animals at the zoo. And I would always welcome different species of animals in my practice, not just dogs and cats.” He dreamed of someday having a job like Marlin Perkins’ from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Marlin and his assistant would go around the world and work with exotic animals in exotic places. Since Dr. Tom couldn’t do that, working at the Red River Zoo has become the next best thing. Animals from around the world have come to him.
After working in private practice for five years, he and his wife, Dr. Joann Colville, moved to North Dakota and started the Veterinary Technology program at North Dakota State University (NDSU). As a veterinarian, solving the mystery of what was wrong with an animal and teaching owners how to care for their pets were two of his favorite things. Teaching at the University was a way to mesh solving mysteries and teaching into one profession. Since it was a clinical program, he was able to remain hands-on with the animals. He worked at NDSU for more than 30 years before retiring in early 2011.
Dr. Tom got involved with the Zoo while he was at NDSU. The Veterinary Technology program established a close professional relationship with the Zoo through veterinary technologist Amy Ellwein, who was a charter member of the zoo, and a fellow teacher in the program. Dr. Tom helped with many different Zoo medical procedures, like neutering the wolves, as a way to give his students real-life zoo animal experience. After he retired from NDSU he continued his relationship with the Zoo on an as-needed basis. During an accreditation visit, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) thought it would be advisable for the Zoo to have a staff veterinarian. Dr. Tom had been retired for a few months when he accepted the position as the Red River Zoo attending veterinarian under one condition; he would do it as a volunteer.
“I have the coolest job at the zoo because I get to work with all the animals. Keepers get to work with certain groups of animals. I get to work with all the animals at the zoo. That’s my bliss,” says Dr. Tom. He strives to create a relationship with the animals, so when it comes time for a medical procedure, they feel more comfortable with him around and not frightened of a stranger.
Another important part of his job is working with the Zookeepers in training the animals. Training is important for animal enrichment. It stimulates the animals’ minds to help keep them happy and healthy. It is also important when it comes to medical procedures. Through training, a large animal, for example a camel, is taught to position itself correctly so its vaccinations can be administered with little or no stress to the animal and a safe environment for the personnel involved in the procedure.
Dr. Tom encourages young people interested in veterinary medicine and zoology to get experience anyway they can. Job shadow, intern, volunteer, and do whatever it takes to get involved. For younger people, Dr. Tom thinks very highly of the Red River Zoo’s camps and Junior Zookeeper program. “I think our Junior Zookeeper programs and our camps are great for kids to try things out,” says Dr. Tom. He believes children who are involved in zoo camps will have a bigger appreciation for Zoos and conservation, and nature in general.