Dr. Chris Keller has been with the Aquarium since 1991, before the official grand opening on May 1, 1992. Twenty-five years later, he's had to adapt to caring for an ever-changing collection of animals while simultaneously operating a private practice. Today, in honor of World Veterinary Day, he shares his thoughts about a quarter-century caring for animals great and small, exotic and domestic.
Q: What made you want to be a veterinarian?
A: I know this sounds unbelievable, but I don't remember ever not wanting to be a veterinarian. From the time I was three years old, the first recollection I have is of talking with my mom and asking whether we could get hamsters. [Laughs.] That’s my first memory. I grew up in a place with horses and spent a lot of time out in the woods, and it just always seemed like the only career I could be happy with.
Q: What appeals to you about working with animals?
A: It's become a lot more appealing the longer I've done it. When you're young and reading James Herriot's book "All Creatures Great and Small," you begin to get interested not only in the relationships you have with the animals you’re treating but also with their owners.
I have a firm belief that animals are superior to people in almost every way, so that makes it a lot easier to work on them, even when they’re trying to bite you. I just really enjoy the relationships between animals and people. I care very much about people who love their pets and people who work here at the Aquarium who have devoted their entire lives to taking care of animals. They’re the kind of people I want to be around as well, so it's a good fit for me.
Q: This is our 25th anniversary year, and you've been here since before opening. What was it like being part of the Aquarium from the ground level?
A: It was very different than the relationship I have with the Aquarium now. At first, I was basically like a veterinarian who would go and visit a farm to work with sick animals. It has evolved into a much more involved position where I have a lot more interaction with husbandry, and they look to me to help make decisions that keep animals healthy.
Q: What kinds of decisions?
A: Veterinary medicine at a place like this is very different from what it is in a private practice. From the ground floor up, I'm involved in husbandry, nutrition and hygiene — all the things that keep an animal healthy. Originally, my job was more reactive, and now it's much more proactive.
Taking care of a sick animal is a very small part of what I do here. A lot more of it is conversations and planning and trying to make sure that I don’t need to react to emergencies. The enjoyable thing for me is that it’s like I can go into a person’s home and tell them how to take care of their animal properly and what things to avoid and what things to do.
It's kind of neat to have this bi-phasic practice where I do the work here at the Aquarium in an institutional setting and also have the private practice where I work with dogs and cats. I still really enjoy that.
Q: Since you split your time between working here and working at your private practice, have you developed a fondness for one over the other?
A: Honestly, I don’t know that I could make the decision to do one more than the other. There are advantages to both. Here, I’m working with world-renowned experts on the care and keeping of all the different animals, but at the private practice, they're not experts, but they really love their animals in a different sort of way than we do. Individual animals are much more important in a private practice. At the Aquarium, populations and success of a species and conservation is much more emphasized.
Q: Even if individuals are less of the emphasis at the Aquarium, do you find that you still form attachments and develop personal relationships with specific animals here?
A: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It’s just that when you have 10,000 animals, it's tough to have the same relationship you would with a big, fluffy tomcat or a Labrador Retriever that wakes you up every morning with a tennis ball in its mouth.
You still become very attached. Obviously, some animals have more personality and are long-lived, so there are lots of close interactions. Trust me, when we lose one from old age or some unforeseen process, it's just as telling and just as significant for the people who take care of them and work with them every day. There are a lot of attachments that are formed at a place like this as well.
Q: Do you have an animal or species you have an especial attachment to, personally?
A: Not really. When something is new, you develop an affinity for them because you've been reading and studying the information and experiencing them for the very first time.
Right now, the hot animal for me is the lemurs, and the involvement with the lemurs is two-fold because not only are they new and exciting and different from anything we’ve cared for here before, but also, they are intelligent, endearing and have individual personalities.
It was the same thing when we got penguins. It was very exciting to get involved with penguins for the first time.
Maybe it's a good sign that that list of favorite animals is always being changed and turning over because it means I still have an interest in what’s going on.
Q: What is the process you go through when preparing for the arrival of a new animal, like the lemurs or the penguins?
A: There's a lot of self-study and information that needs to be acquired. With exotic animals, you have to fall back on that small enclave of veterinarians who work with these exotic animals a lot. For example, with the lemurs, I spent a lot of time with the veterinarians at the Duke Lemur Center and was able to go ahead and read the literature about the different conditions they might deal with and get an idea of what to expect while also preparing myself for the unexpected.
It's a process, and the more I do it, the easier it becomes because it becomes almost second nature to reach out and talk with people and read about things from veterinarians who have been working with them a lot more than I have.
Q: Having done this for 30 years, have the tables turned at all? Do people seek you out as a resource for the care of any of the species at the Aquarium?
A: Yeah, there are some areas where people call me, for example sea horses. There are certainly some members of the collection we deal with more than others, and the Aquarium as a whole becomes expert in the field among all the other institutions, like the River Otters. All the different turtle species we keep here are also kind of our strong suit. It's just one of those things you grow into.
There's a lot more specialization that’s taking place now in the veterinary field. Veterinarians are rarely graduating from school willing to do what I do, which is basically to work on any animal that comes through the door. Now, kids coming out of school want to be specific and specialized, but I much prefer being a generalist. I feel Ike it suits my knowledge and personality better, too, because the same rules apply to all animals — Where do they come from? What is it like there? What do they eat?
My background in wildlife biology is helpful because the natural history of an animal is the key to keeping them healthy. If you know what they need and what they have in the wild, where they adapted and evolved, then you're in a much better place than you would be if you're seeing an animal for the first time and have no idea what they look like or where they’re from.
Q: It seems like you have to be generalized to do this kind of work for a zoo or an aquarium. Those recent graduates who are specializing would be hard-pressed to do this kind of work.
A: Oh, they’ll never have a job like mine. I'm a dinosaur. There are only two or three vets left who are interested in doing dog and cat work and working at a zoo or aquarium. That’s part of the fun. When you start talking about careers, working down here is much more cerebral and less physical. Working in practice, sometimes it’s the same thing over and over again, and you have to pick up a lot of big dogs, but the differences are with the people who bring them through the door and the personalities of the pets you’re working with.
Q: What’s the greatest challenge of working at the Aquarium?
A: I guess, really, it's the constancy of it. There's always something. I get texts and phone calls all the time when I'm not here. That’s all good — that's the way I'd rather have it — but a lot of people might tire of that. If I get my Sunday morning text as I'm getting ready to go to church, and it says one of the penguins just laid an egg, that's OK. [Laughs.] I don’t mind being bothered by that. The challenge is the amount of work that goes into it and the fact that it’s always changing.
Q: What’s the greatest reward of your job?
A: It's like the coolest job ever. I do a lot of work now with younger kids who are in vet school or even younger than that who are trying to decide what they want to do with their life. They look at what I’m doing and think, “Wow, that’s as cool as it gets.” That’s a really good feeling. You get an opportunity to not only help animals but to help people with their animals.
I think I'm getting to that phase of my career now where me being able to impart some of what I know to younger people and also being able to help clients and people here take care of animals is just an honor. Thinking about what I've been able to do gets you almost emotional. I'm really lucky to get to do what I do.