Mill Valley vet helps zoo animals and pets live better, pain-free lives

Mill Valley vet helps zoo animals and pets live better, pain-free lives


For Erika Gebhard, spending her days surrounded by tortoises, giraffes, elephants, dogs, cats and other animals is a dream come true. But, what’s even better for the Mill Valley resident is that she helps them live happier, better-quality lives through her work as a physical rehabilitation vet at the Oakland Zoo and Animal Care and Emergency Services in San Francisco, helping to create individualized plans and utilizing a variety of methods such as manual therapy, laser therapy and acupuncture.

Since graduating from the UC Davis Veterinary School in 2004, she has also consulted with the San Francisco Zoo and California Academy of Sciences about penguins, red pandas and Komodo dragons.

Erika Gebhard works with elephants through her work at the Oakland Zoo.  (Courtesy of Erika Gebhard)

Courtesy of Erika Gebhard

Erika Gebhard works with elephants through her work at the Oakland Zoo.

Gebhard, who is passionate about mobility, geriatric medicine and pain management, started working in that field around 2014.

Q Have you always been drawn to animals?

A I wanted to be a vet since I learned what a vet was. I always dragged my parents to the zoo and my grandmother took me to Africa on safari, which was just fantastic. When I was younger I worked at the San Francisco Zoo, and in high school at Marin Academy I worked at WildCare in San Rafael.

Q What made you want to be a vet?

A I always loved animals but I wanted to do something where I could make a difference. I also love science. It just made sense. And then I started doing what I do now and felt even more so.

Q How did you get into your field?

A As a child, we always got our pets at the San Francisco SPCA and I got a job there right out of school. I started doing pain management and I got acupuncture certified, so I started doing both Western and integrated medicine. My friend and classmate from Davis opened up a clinic and asked, “Hey, do you want to do rehab?” It fit perfectly — injury prevention, pain management and mobility medicine — so I took that job and this is what I do now. A lot of what I do is educating and improving not just my patient, but others. It’s a lot of collaboration between zoos and the vet community and really helping move all of vet medicine forward as a team. It feels good.

Q You look at these animals with a holistic approach.

A And it is. We’ve made a prosthetic for a crow. We have done braces, slings and harnesses, surgery, medication and all things. I will use anything in my tool belt. You can’t always do the same exercises on a brown bear you’d do on a dog, but it’s kind of remarkably similar and you can achieve a lot of the same goals.

Q I bet it never gets old to see these animals feel better.

A It’s the best. And not just animals. To see owners being able to take a walk with their pets again or seeing an elephant being able to lie down and rest and get back up again and walk in a herd again, to see them and the people who love and care for them be able to have that relationship again, it’s wonderful.

Q I heard you’ve worked on an arthritic elephant.

A Elephants are one of the big focuses of the work we are doing at the Oakland Zoo. Looking at how do we age gracefully? I think as humans we are embracing that and now we are bringing in animals as well. Age isn’t a number, how can we maintain comfortable mobility and independence as much as possible? The team at Oakland Zoo are brilliant, it just makes the job so much easier and enjoyable. I’ll go the keepers and say, “OK, here is my idea (for this animal), just tell me if you think it’s crazy.” And nine times out of 10, I will come back later and they’ve figured out a way to do it.

Q Is there an animal you’ve worked with that stands out?

A My most memorable was my first zoo patient, a Komodo dragon at the SF Zoo. Coming in and having a really difficult neurological and post-operative case and just doing acupuncture, lasers and manual therapy on the dragon was just an unbelievable experience. He did well. Truly humbling and rewarding. He’ll always have a space place in my heart.

Q Do you have a favorite animal to work with these days?

A The elephants because they are so challenging, intelligent and big, so magical and funny. Their personalities are big and they have preferences and opinions, which is fun.

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