As an Auburn Veterinary School graduate and the current Director of Animal Health at the Birmingham Zoo, today’s FACE of Birmingham has an inspiring passion for wildlife. Dr. Stephanie McCain, a Diplomate in the American College of Zoological Medicine, does not know a “typical” day, shares a deep connection with a mother orangutan and is driven by the hope to make a difference. This proud mother of two leads a life worth sharing, and we’re thrilled to feature her as today’s FACE of Birmingham. Meet Dr. Stephanie McCain!
Growing up in Illinois, what brought you to the South and specifically Birmingham?
I applied to colleges that also had a veterinary school and was able to get a scholarship to attend Auburn University. I met my now-husband while I was there, and he has family in the area.
Take us through your professional journey.
After obtaining my B.S. from Auburn, I stayed there for veterinary school, which is a four-year program. Upon completion, I did a one-year internship at a small animal emergency and referral hospital in New Jersey, followed by a one-year internship and three-year residency in Zoological Medicine at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I then accepted a position as the veterinarian for the Birmingham Zoo. A few years later, I was promoted to my current position as Director of Animal Health. In 2012, I became a Diplomate in the American College of Zoological Medicine after passing a two-day certifying exam.
Describe your typical day as the Director of Animal Health at the Birmingham Zoo.
One of the things I like best about this job is that there is no typical day. Often the morning is filled with medical exams or procedures, as well as rechecking patients, and the afternoon is typically more paperwork and meetings. However, everything can change at a moment’s notice if an animal needs medical attention.
Where did your passion for animals come from? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
My mom worked as a receptionist at a small animal clinic when I was growing up, and I used to love to go there and watch the vets work. Being a zoo vet lets me combine my passion for wildlife with my passion for veterinary medicine.
Tell us a memorable moment, story or connection you’ve made with an animal along your journey.
While I was pregnant with my daughter, our female orangutan, Lipz, was also pregnant. Because great apes are so similar to humans, it is common to have an OBGYN act as a consultant. So I asked mine, Dr. Beth Snowden, if she would be willing to serve in that role. Then, I could give her updates at my appointments. Lipz’s baby ended up being breech, so we had to call in Dr. Snowden for an emergency C-section, which ended up being exactly one week before my scheduled C-section. I will always remember that orangutan’s birthday!
As the Director of Health, what is your response to criticism of zoos? What are people forgetting to consider when criticizing zoos?
I think the role of zoos is changing. We are much more focused on active conservation efforts than putting animals on “display.” I think it is important for people to be able to see different species in order for them to really care about conserving the species and their habitat, and who is better to teach people this information? AZA-accredited zoos have played vital roles in several species’ recovery, species that otherwise would have gone extinct, such as the California condor, black-footed ferret and Przewalski’s horse.
What is special about the Birmingham Zoo?
All of the staff here have a tremendous amount of passion and enthusiasm, across all departments. Our animal department spends a lot of effort on training behaviors that allow animals to participate in their own medical care, such as voluntarily accepting vaccines, allowing blood collection, participating in ultrasound sessions and more — which is better for the animals on so many levels. They never cease to amaze me with the things they are able to teach the animals.
What is most challenging about your job?
I think the biggest challenge is that medical equipment and standards of care are ever-evolving and so expensive that those can be difficult to maintain in a not-for-profit setting.
What is the most rewarding?
There is a lot that I find rewarding. Managing a difficult case or difficult anesthesia is always rewarding. I like the challenge of so many species. Sometimes this can also be one of the most difficult things as we continue to learn more about each species. Human physicians are often very specialized, down to a single organ system of a single species, whereas zoo vets have to know all aspects of all species.
What inspires you?
I have to hope that we can make a difference. I want there to still be rhinos and orangutans and vultures in their native habitats when my kids and my kids’ kids grow up.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old who keep me busy! I like to read, and we try to go to the lake as often as possible. We love to travel as well.
What do you love most about Birmingham?
The city is growing yet there is still a lot to do outdoors, such as parks for hiking and lakes for swimming and boating.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
Get together with friends for dinner.
Favorite local restaurant?
That’s tough. We go to Iguana Grill a lot!
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Ten years ago, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids. I would tell myself that having kids is the best thing that will ever happen to you.
Finish this sentence: If I could have any superpower, it would be ___________.
Teleporting. I don’t enjoy driving or flying, so I would much rather just be able to immediately be at my destination.
Any guilty pleasures?
I have a weakness for margaritas and cheese dip.
What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?
I took a semester off in college to travel to Nepal, Thailand and Taiwan.
I don’t know that I have a favorite. I think they all have unique aspects that I appreciate — except bugs. I don’t like bugs.
What is your best piece of advice?
If you really want to achieve a goal, you need to be persistent and jump in with both feet.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Travel, going out to eat and my water bottle — it goes everywhere with me.
Thank you, Stephanie! Learn more about Stephanie’s work and the animals at the Birmingham Zoo by visiting birminghamzoo.com.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Dr. Stephanie McCain.