Paws and Professionalism: Journey to becoming a Cincinnati Zoo Veterinarian

Posted December 9, 2023 by Mike Wenninger

Today is International Day of Veterinary Medicine! To celebrate, we talked to Dr. Mike Wenninger, Director of Animal Health at the Cincinnati Zoo, to learn more about his journey to becoming a vet!

There are several paths to becoming a zoo veterinarian. My path to zoo veterinary medicine was one of several stops with helpful information learned along the way. In the moment, I never realized that each experience would benefit my future career.  

I wanted to be a veterinarian from as far back as I can remember. I developed a fascination with wildlife and exotic animals at age 4 when I found my first snake. From that point, I never questioned which career I would pursue. I still hold a fondness for the underrepresented species including birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish and feel that they should experience the same level of veterinary care as our charismatic mammals. I enjoy working with all species for each offers unique challenges and an opportunity to advance their well-being. 

vet x-raying a salamander
Alligator Ultrasound

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and attended UW-Madison for college and veterinary school. I could not afford to pursue internships and residency training to further my goal of being a zoo veterinarian, so I joined a busy, progressive companion animal and exotics veterinary practice. There, I expanded the exotics caseload and became the attending veterinarian for several small zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers.  

After 4 years, I joined another clinic and regional referral center where I honed my surgical and emergency medicine skills while continuing to see a large zoo and exotics caseload.  

My family and I then moved back to my home state of WI, and I joined a small animal clinic as the managing veterinarian and medical director. I expanded the scope of the clinic, tripling its income and developing a well-respected zoo and exotics veterinary practice. I learned good business practices, personnel management, budget development, and furthered my leadership skills.  

Following 14 years as a veterinarian, I still held onto the passion for zoo and wildlife medicine and wanted to do more to help stop loss of biodiversity and have a bigger impact than that which I had in private practice. I moved to CA and joined the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to begin my full-time zoo career. At the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, I provided preventative, medical, surgical, and emergency care for all the animals at the zoo. I was able to practice high quality, progressive medicine without constraints. 

vets examining a bongo
vet performing a Tiger Surgery

When I viewed a posting for the Director of Animal Health position at the Cincinnati Zoo and & Botanical Garden, I knew immediately where I wanted to continue my career. As director of animal health, I use my previous experiences to lead an exceptionally talented animal health and nutrition team. We are expanding veterinary care within the zoo, forming collaborative relationships with regional zoos and specialists, advancing the scientific literature on zoo medicine and nutrition, providing support for conservation initiatives regionally and globally, being active in professional organizations, and making a difference in our world. 

My career began as a child’s dream and continues as director of animal health at the Cincinnati Zoo. I genuinely enjoy my position and there is nowhere I would rather work. Where else could you work with a fish and elephant on the same day? I look forward to the challenges ahead.