Queen of the jungle: Memphis Zoo’s top vet takes us inside her animal kingdom

Queen of the jungle: Memphis Zoo’s top vet takes us inside her animal kingdom

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Memphis Zoo attracts 1.3 million visitors a year, and USA Today named it one of the top 10 zoos in the country earlier this year.

Caring for the more than 4,500 animals there is a 24-hour job.

WMC Action News 5 received unprecedented access to go behind the scenes with the zoo’s top veterinarian.

It’s not often Dr. Felicia Knightly gets a break. On a sunny fall day there was a moment to just take it all in as she left one animal -- the zoo’s largest Aldabra giant tortoise -- to check-in on another -- a red-ruffed lemur named Carmen.

Day-in and day-out Knightly, the zoo’s senior veterinarian, moves between annual examinations, patient check-ups and the occasional unforeseen emergency.

"There are no normal days,” she said.

Our cameras began following Knightly in August when Carmen was recovering from surgery on her hand and arm. It’s an injury the doctor believes was caused by another animal.

“Time is going to tell as to how much dexterity or ability she’s going to have,” Knightly said in August.

During a visit two months later, Carmen was already back to her old self. It’s a critical development for this critically endangered species.

“I’ll tell you what, she does her own physical therapy,” Knightly said. “She knows exactly what she needs to do. Now when you go to check on her it’s almost hard to tell.”

Senior veterinarian at the Memphis Zoo takes WMC behind the scenes

Knightly has been at the Memphis Zoo for eight years. She graduated vet school in 1993. She’s been working toward this her whole life.

"I don’t remember wanting to do anything else. Ever,” said Knightly.

There aren’t many open positions in the world of zoo medicine. It’s something she discovered after she started down this path.

"Positions are few and far between and someone may have to die for you to get a job, and I’m thinking are you kidding,” said Knightly.

Since the world of zoo veterinarians is a small one, they rely on others’ experiences. Case in point -- treating the Memphis Zoo’s pangolin named Little Anthony.

“I had never touched one in my life,” Knightly said. “I had never seen one in my life.”

The keratin-covered mammals are considered a vulnerable species with a declining population, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The scaly anteaters are relatively new to zoos, and Memphis is one of the few zoos to have one.

On a day Little Anthony needed a haircut, Knightly also used the time to do a physical exam. Yearly physicals allow her time to get to know the Memphis Zoo’s 4,500 animals.

Memphis Zoo has the only Bear Cuscus on exhibit in the U.S.

They can’t tell her how they feel, so it’s up to Knightly and the zookeepers to pick up on something wrong.

“That’s a huge part of our job,” she said. “To be able to understand that these animals are very stoic and may be not be showing you how badly they may be feeling.”

She said there are few animals more stoic than reptiles. During a day our cameras were rolling, Knightly examined a Louisiana Pine Snake having trouble laying an egg.

"On the day we were doing that surgery it wasn’t your typical surgery,” she said.

Knightly discovered an unfertilized egg was blocking a healthy egg. The bad egg started to disintegrate, causing major inflammation in the snake’s oviduct and making for a very uncomfortable mom.

Surgery would be risky, but the reward outweighed the risks involved.

“In certain situations, conservation does have to depend on an individual,” Knightly said. “An individual that has been proven to be genetically valuable for the population.”

The pine snake isn't on exhibit but is part of a group being bred at the Memphis Zoo to repopulate the endangered species in the wild. While there are signs she's feeling better, only time will tell if she will be able to breed again.

It’s the circle of life constantly reminding Knightly what her purpose truly is.

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