Dr. Felicia Knightly always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian. She is now on call 24/7 to more than 3,500 patients at the Memphis Zoo animal hospital, one of the only facilities of its kind in the zoo world. Felicia has done some spectacular things during her time in Memphis such as neonatal exams for (almost) all of the zoo’s high-profile animals, including their now 1-year-old snow leopard. She’s also done a wellness check on the female orangutan, Jahe. (It is a rare event when a great ape like an orangutan is put under anesthesia for a complete physical examination.)
Felicia has worked at zoos and animal rescue organizations in several U.S. locales and around the world. She became the senior veterinarian at the Memphis Zoo in March 2012. Today, we introduce this amazing woman to you. Welcome, Dr. Knightly!
Looking back, when did you discover your love and talent for working with animals?
I don’t ever remember wanting to be anything but a veterinarian. As a child in South Hadley, Mass., I had wonderful parents who indulged my passion for caring for animals by allowing me to have many pets, including dogs, cats, horses, reptiles, budgies, gerbils and even a tarantula. Recently, my mother ran into my third-grade teacher, who reminded her that in third grade I had told her that I wanted to grow up and be a veterinarian. She was not at all surprised that I had done just that.
Tell us about a typical day (if there ever is one!) in your role as senior veterinarian at the Memphis Zoo.
I absolutely love what I do, and not many people can say that. One of the things that I love most about my job is that no two days are ever alike. I learn something new every day, and there is never a day that I don’t want to come to work. Each day, we have a list of patients that we need to see, whether it be for a routine checkup or because they have a medical concern, but there are always surprises. I care for over 3,500 patients, none of whom can tell me verbally what is wrong. We have to know what “normal” is for our animals before we can recognize “abnormal.”
Describe one of your funniest situations with one of the animals you were treating.
I’m not sure if everyone would find this funny, but those who witnessed it sure did. At the Denver Zoo, we had a spider monkey named Bungee, who unfortunately had been rejected by his mother and had to be hand-raised. Once he was mobile, we gave him a jungle gym. He eventually discovered that he could use his prehensile tail to hang from the jungle gym. He was so proud! I happened to be under him and laughing at his new-found talent when he did what monkeys do, and due to very unfortunate timing, he pooped on my face. I can tell you that it was not at all funny at the time, but I find it pretty hilarious now.
What is one of the most memorable and rewarding events you have experienced with one of the animals you were treating?
As a veterinarian, it is a gift to be trusted by your patients. If they are scared of you, they will mask symptoms. Gaining the trust of great apes, such as gorillas, bonobos or orangutans, is very difficult because they are brilliant and remember that you are the person that has given them a shot or taken blood. Every time that I am able to gain the trust of a great ape, it is meaningful.
Do you have favorite animals at the Memphis Zoo?
I will definitely get into trouble for naming favorites, but I do have them. The oldest of our Southdown ewes, Crystal, is an absolute favorite of mine. We bonded during a particularly long stay of hers at the zoo hospital. Crystal presented with an infection in her jaw secondary to dental disease. When we were able to let her out to roam the hospital, she would run down the hall to visit me. After six months of treatment, she is now back with her flock and doing well.
In general, I love to work with primates. Because of their intelligence, they are extremely challenging, not only as patients, but also in everyday interactions. They are constantly testing me.
Describe yourself in three adjectives.
What is a favorite beauty product you can’t imagine not using?
I cannot be without my Chandler Farms Mia’s Hand Cream. The forests in Borneo and Sumatra, which are home to the world’s wild orangutans, are being converted into oil palm plantations at a massive scale — about the size of Shelby Farms — every day. This is causing a dramatic reduction in the population of orangutans and other species, including Sumatran tigers, Borneo Sumatran rhinos, Borneo pygmy elephants, Borneo clouded leopards and sun bears.
Chandler Farms has created global awareness regarding the devastation created by products that use palm oil and has donated thousands of dollars to rainforest and orangutan conservation. The Mia’s Hand Cream is named for an orangutan who was under my care at the Denver Zoo, and an orangutan born a few years ago in Memphis, Indah, is also honored with her name on some of their products.
What are some guiding words you live by, or perhaps a favorite quote?
“Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
What is your number one vacation escape and why?
Anywhere that I can experience for the first time a certain species in their natural habitat. One particularly rewarding vacation involved hiking in the mountains of Uganda, where I had the amazing experience of observing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
- Sweet tea
- Good friends
Are there any special events coming up soon that you are especially looking forward to?
I’ve traveled all over the world with my dad. We are currently planning our travels to our sixth continent together: Australia.
Felicia, from StyleBlueprint and our readers, thank you for all you do for the animal kingdom, especially at our city’s extraordinary, world-class zoo!
Watch a video of Felicia, created by the Memphis Zoo in follow-up to their now 1-year-old male snow leopard’s neonatal exam.
Photography by Whitney McNeill.