Did you know there are veterinarians who specialize in anesthesiology? Not only does the Chicago Zoological Society have a highly skilled team of veterinarians with advanced training in zoo animals and wildlife, but we are also fortunate to have two veterinarians on our team with advanced training specifically in anesthesiology. Dr. Julie Balko, Veterinary Fellow in Anesthesia and Analgesia, joined our team earlier this year with a focus of continuing to grow our programs and further advance the high quality veterinary care provided to the animals here at Brookfield Zoo and beyond. Her position is unique because not only is it the first year the position has existed here at the zoo, it is the first position of its kind in the world!
Like many veterinarians, Dr. Balko has always loved animals and knew from a very early age she wanted to be a veterinarian. She still remembers receiving her first toy veterinary kit called “The Pet Vet” when she was six years old! Dr. Balko attended veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania and then completed four additional years of internship and residency training at North Carolina State University. During her residency, Dr. Balko was trained in anesthesia and analgesia (a fancy word for pain management) of primarily domestic species. However, she has always had a strong interest in zoo and wildlife species and eagerly joined the team at Brookfield Zoo to further advance her training. Her current year-long fellowship is designed to provide veterinary anesthesiologists the opportunity to become experts in the field of zoo animal anesthesia and analgesia.
Dr. Balko spends half of her time working alongside the zoo’s veterinarians to safely anesthetize and consult on pain management plans for all of the animals at the zoo. Today most zoo animals live longer than they would in the wild, allowing problems like age-related degenerative arthritis to develop. Similar to managing aches and pains in an elderly person, our veterinarians work hard to ensure our older patients remain comfortable. Two of her favorite patients so far have been Malaya the snow leopard and Obesa the pygmy hippopotamus.
The other half of Dr. Balko’s time is dedicated to performing research on a variety of topics, such as evaluating pain medications in frogs, assessing new anesthetic drugs in birds, and using a pressure sensing walkway to help diagnose and treat lameness in penguins, otters, and other animals. She has even had the opportunity to travel to Peru to assist with the Society’s conservation program at Punta San Juan. In this remote field setting, Dr. Balko conducted a project assessing a novel anesthetic monitoring device in fur seals and sea lions. Dr. Balko loves that she has the opportunity to directly impact and help the animals at Brookfield Zoo, but through her research, is also helping to make great strides in our knowledge of the anesthetic and analgesic management of zoo and wildlife species which will benefit these animals for years to come.
One of Dr. Balko’s favorite things about being at Brookfield Zoo is the variety of animals she gets to work with on a daily basis. From a delicate 50 gram songbird to a massive 2,500 pound rhinoceros, each animal presents their own unique anesthetic challenges and makes every day interesting…there is no such thing as a “boring day the office”! Dr. Balko is thrilled to be part of the Brookfield Zoo team and loves both the animals AND people she has the pleasure of working with every day.