Joseph Rosenthal still remembers his first case: avian weight loss.

“I know what to think about in an 18-month old human child, or an 80-year-old long-time smoker,” he said. “But a bird? Could be anything — some infection I’ve never heard of or obstruction in a digestive organ humans don’t even have.”

Dr Rosenthal was finishing his final year as a Harvard medical student when he signed up for the elective Comparative Medicine in a Zoo Environment.

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The program started at Harvard only 3 years ago, after a medical student reached out to Franklin Park Zoo’s veterinary hospital as an independent study. Harvard’s partnership with Zoo New England brought the elective to life and is unlike any other program in the country.

The 4-week elective allows students to shadow veterinarians at the Franklin Park Zoo near Boston and Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Daily assignments range from caring for a lemur with diabetes to assisting with a turtle undergoing surgery.

The experience offers students a chance to study medicine in a truly wild environment.

“I think it was the perfect way to set up the transition into postgraduate medical education,” said Dr Rosenthal, “which certainly requires a good deal of humility and an open mind for what you don’t even know that you don’t know.”

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The elective is part of the One Health Initiative, which promotes collaboration between veterinarians and physicians. Harvard’s elective is still new, but the trend doesn’t show signs of stopping.

“An alliance between a zoo and a medical school is a unique opportunity to learn more about comparative medicine and One Health,” said Dr Rosenthal. “You never know what you can learn from surgery on a turtle or a physical exam on a — literal — zebra.”


Weintraub K. Doctor, Your Patient Is Waiting. It’s a Red Panda. New York Times. June 29, 2018. Accessed August 13, 2018.