Dr. Doug Armstrong’s job at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium sees him draw blood from the tails of lions, give ultrasounds to tigers and fly as far away as Asia, all with the goal of species survival.
As the zoo’s director of animal health, Armstrong plays a hands-on role as he heads a department responsible for the health of the animals in the zoo and for improving the survivability of select species around the world.
“For me, it really is about the conservation,” Armstrong said. “We’re helping prevent extinction.”
When he started at the zoo in 1985, Armstrong’s job was that of the lone general veterinarian and researcher. Now, in addition to heading the expanded animal health department, he has also held leadership positions with the Species Survival Plan for tigers and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.
“That stuff is above and beyond what most veterinarians would do,” said zoo COO Danny Morris. “He’s a brilliant clinical veterinarian. He could rest on those laurels if he wants, but he has always been very inspired and very giving of his time to those efforts.”
Born in Greenfield, Iowa, Armstrong attended veterinary school at Iowa State University before working an internship with dairy cattle at Cornell University. After a temporary job at a zoo in Minnesota ended, Armstrong moved to Omaha to work at the growing zoo, which he viewed as conservation-minded.
Early in his tenure at the zoo, Armstrong began working with the Species Survival Plan for tigers as a veterinary adviser, a role he has held for about 30 years. Armstrong has traveled as far as Indonesia, Thailand and China for captive animal conservation projects and the Russian Far East to work with a team training locals to safely immobilize free-ranging tigers.
This fall, Armstrong wrapped up a four-year run in leadership positions with the zoo veterinarians association, serving most recently as president.
“Doug’s not afraid of a new challenge,” Morris said. “If something new came up that he needed to focus on, he’d be right on it.”
Now his focus is shifting to prepare for new animals in the Omaha zoo’s redesigned African Grasslands. He has been helping a team design the facilities while also learning about common medical conditions for new animals, like impalas, so he and his team can find ways to treat them according to the zoo’s standards.
Most animals in the zoo are trained with whistles and treats in a positive feedback system to prepare them for routine examinations and simple procedures. In the past, animals had to be anesthetized and transported to the hospital even for simple checkups. Armstrong said the zoo has placed a greater emphasis over the years on keeping animals awake and aware in their enclosures whenever possible to promote a better quality of life.
He also devotes a chunk of his time to prepare for disaster. Armstrong is part of a team that has created a set of emergency protocol to handle diseases that affect animal populations, like West Nile virus, hoof and mouth disease, a variety of flus and others.
His role at the zoo has expanded and become more varied with time, which has reduced his hands-on animal time. Despite the far-reaching work he has done throughout his career, he still finds the most pleasure in the simple interactions with tigers at the zoo — something he only gets to do about once every three months now.
But when he gets the chance, it makes all the other work well worth it.
“If I get to touch a tiger once in a while, that’s the reward.”
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