Dr. Heather Robertson is a born-and-raised Nashvillian who’s been a full-time staff member at Nashville Zoo at Grassmere since 2010. Today, she leads the veterinary care team as Director of Veterinary Services, and she was also the major force behind the creation of the brand new HCA Healthcare Veterinary Center. The 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art, LEED-certified facility opened in March, and Dr. Robertson has been smiling ever since! A passion project of hers, this center is all about inspiring future generations and animal lovers alike — and with ample windows and its own Twitter feed, guests can show up and watch surgeries, take a look at newborn animals or ogle whatever inhabitants may be receiving care. Find out more about why Dr. Robertson was so passionate about the creation of the center, what this new facility means for Zoo guests and just how many animals this animal lover has of her own. Meet our newest FACE of Nashville, Dr. Heather Robertson!
When did you first discover your passion for working with animals?
Ever since I was a kid I just loved animals and always navigated to them and tried to rescue everything I could. I wasn’t a kid who knew I wanted to be a vet, though. I thought I wanted to go into marine biology or something in conservation. I got my first job at 19 at a small vet clinic and worked there all four years of college [at MTSU], and then I went to vet school at UT-Knoxville.
Tell me about the new HCA Healthcare Veterinary Center. Why was this project so important to you?
I was a keeper [at the Zoo] in 2001 and grew up coming here. I always knew that the Zoo was growing and always thought we could do more than the vet center. I wanted it to be open and share with our guests what we do. Also, our facility was so antiquated — there were a lot of restrictions to the level of care we could give due to lack of space. Those two things are what drove me to guide and push for a new hospital and get out of the old building we were in. It was built in 1988 for the old wildlife park — it was never meant to be a hospital.
When was the concept for the center first conceived?
2014 is when we started the conversation. All of us, as directors, were encouraged to look at what would help us grow. The first thing I threw out was “a lot more space.” If we wanted to add hoofstock and primate species, we needed a facility that could accommodate them — I couldn’t fit them in the building. And from there, it took off. We received $10 million gift from the city to match dollar for dollar, and that was the beginning of our “Grow Wild” campaign.
You traveled all over the United States to conduct research for this new facility. Where did you go? What were some of the key features at other facilities that you brought to Nashville Zoo?
Oklahoma, San Diego, Disney, Busch Gardens … Those were the ones we really looked at and took architects to — San Diego and Oklahoma specifically because they had a lot of aspects that we wanted to copy and put in this facility. Hoofstock was a big one for the San Diego Zoo. The push alley and hoist — we stole that idea from them. We went to Oklahoma because it was the newest hospital at the time. It was still under construction, and they were using the same designer that did all the hoofstock alley and stainless work. He was doing a project there, and we felt it was something to be seen at the time. The whole point of going around was to find out what we liked and, most importantly, didn’t like … what wasn’t working. That’s where we got ideas for flow and layout and even office spaces. We looked for what worked and didn’t work and what cool features would make us state-of-the-art.
We have cameras in every holding area to watch the animals. I can watch them at any hour to make sure they’re okay. Those ideas were super helpful to make this one of the best — if not THE best — hospital in the nation.
Why was the open concept — the viewing windows and such — such an important part of this project?
Conservation was the reason we wanted to open it up to the guests. The philosophy at zoos for years was to show the public the best you can do. So there was always a front and back of house. The front was always the best exhibit design you could do. As a result, the public was getting a sanitized view about what zoos were about, and it wasn’t really showing the overall operations. It was just showing the display, and because people couldn’t see the amount of work and care behind the scenes, guests often filled in the narrative on their own, and that was sometimes negative. So by opening the hospital and allowing people to come and see the quality of care offered, the public can see the amount of work that goes into caring for the animals day in and day out. We’re inviting people to see the work being done — pretty, ugly or otherwise — and it helps people understand the dedication that these people who work here have for the animals that live here.
What does this new facility mean to Zoo guests?
I hope we inspire the next generation to go into medical care and conservation aspects of the Zoo. We also want to show and take away the amount of care that the Zoo has for the animals in the collection. Before, it was all behind the scenes. People didn’t know we had a hospital or technicians and vets and keepers. We take animal welfare seriously, and we’re putting that on the forefront for people to observe and see what we’re doing.
What’s the coolest feature of the new center?
My two favorite rooms are the OR and the conference room. I could sit in there forever — it’s amazing!
What’s your favorite part about working at the Zoo?
Being part of Nashville Zoo’s community — It’s really cool to say I work at Nashville Zoo and what that means to all the kids and guests in Nashville. When I tell people I work at the Zoo, they light up. I love that I get to work where people come to visit for fun with their families and that we’re teaching them to care in the future for animals they don’t even know about.
What’s your favorite exhibit or animal?
What’s an interesting fact about your facility?
We have all women on staff. There are seven of us in this building — two vets, two vet techs, two hospital keepers and one registrar who does all the data and paperwork to keep us legal.
Gotta ask. Do you have any animals at home?
Ha! Yes. I have a French bulldog, a pug, a lab, a cockatoo, a macaw, fish and a cat.
When you’re not working how do you spend your time?
Taking care of my 11-year-old daughter. She’s awesome. And I love hanging out with friends.
What’s your favorite hangout in Nashville — restaurant, park or otherwise?
Henrietta Red in Germantown
What’s the best advice you’ve been given and from whom?
I don’t remember who said it, but it’s what’s gotten me where I am: It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Just like this hospital, I just kept asking — Here’s what we need and what we want to do. They can always tell you “no,” but I’m a big one to keep asking and growing. I feel like that shows drive.
What are three things you can’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
Nature/outdoors, my phone, travel
Thank you, Dr. Robertson. Check out the new HCA Healthcare Veterinary Center at Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, 3777 Nolensville Pike, Nashville, TN 37211. Learn more at nashvillezoo.org. And thank you to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the fantastic photos!
These two physicians are healthcare leaders who are making an impact in their respective fields. Get to know our newest FACES of TriStar and find out more about the impact they’re making at TriStar StoneCrest and beyond. Click HERE!