The Making of an Aquarium Vet
Dr. Matt O’Connor says he landed his dream job when he joined Shedd’s animal health team as staff veterinarian in 2015. His extensive training in domestic, exotic and wildlife veterinary medicine has taken him across the country as well as around the world, but his roots are in the Chicago area.
He grew up in Glen Ellyn, and his family nurtured his love of animals and nature. Early on, reptiles figured large in his life. Because his father was allergic to cats and dogs, Dr. Matt’s first pet was an iguana. He soon added to his collection as he and his grandfather explored the nearby DuPage River, finding softshell and snapping turtles, bullfrogs and garter snakes.
(He still keeps reptiles and amphibians, including dart frogs, day geckos, several snakes and his three favorite turtle species, spotted turtles, box turtles and diamondback terrapins.)
It didn’t take Dr. Matt long to figure out that he wanted to be a veterinarian. “As a kid, it was always, what’s the best job I could ever hope for working with animals? It was to be a vet, so that was always my goal,” he says.
“As a kid, it was always, what’s the best job I could ever hope for working with animals? It was to be a vet, so that was always my goal.”Dr. Matt O'Connor, staff veterinarian
He still wasn’t sure how he could combine his passion for conservation and love for exotic animal medicine. But throughout high school, he kept pursuing his interests in and out of the classroom: building bat houses for his local park district as an Eagle Scout project; taking classes at nearby Brookfield Zoo; volunteering at a wildlife rescue center and working at a veterinary clinic. And the summer of 1998, after his sophomore year, he took part in Shedd’s High School Marine Biology program in the Bahamas aboard the aquarium’s research vessel.
“It was phenomenal,” Dr. Matt says, “not only for what I learned, but it was also one of the first classes where I got to meet like-minded students. In high school, there aren’t always kids as interested as you are in wildlife and nature.” The class also inspired him to become a certified scuba diver.
With high grades in science and math, an impressive roster of extracurricular accomplishments and an undiminished drive to pursue fish, reptile and avian medicine, he was accepted into the University of Illinois’ preveterinary program as a freshman, enabling him to start vet school as soon as he completed his prerequisite undergrad courses.
As he worked toward his DVM, Dr. Matt sought a wide variety of opportunities with domestic animals, exotics and wildlife. “One of my goals has always been to be as well-rounded a veterinarian as possible,” he says.
As a first-year vet student, he volunteered at the U of I’s Wildlife Medical Clinic. “It was a great way to get hands-on experience with live animals—usually you didn’t work with live animals until your third year,” Dr. Matt says. Students treated injured wildlife, which then went on to rehab and release.
The three-year program allowed him to work his way up to team leader in the final year. “That’s how I met my wife, Lauren,” he says. “She randomly signed up for my wildlife team.” Today they are a two-vet family, with Lauren practicing dog and cat medicine.
His second year he added an externship at Dixon Spring Agricultural Center. “People wondered why I worked with farm animals,” he says, “but a pig is like a warthog, a cow is like a water buffalo or even an antelope. It was a great experience to work on a farm in southern Illinois—and I got to go herping”—looking for reptiles—“and hiking every weekend!”
But the program he credits with putting him on his career trajectory and giving him lifelong contacts was Envirovet, a joint six-week program between the University of Illinois and the University of California, Davis. In his two weeks at White Oak Conservation Center in Florida, he worked with terrestrial animals—hoofstock like okapi and zebras, along with cheetahs, Komodo dragons and endangered tortoises—learning how to administer anesthesia, use tranquilizer darts and collect samples.
During the two-week aquatic ecology component at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, also in Florida, he seined for fishes, then learned how to do skin scrapes, gill clips and blood draws—procedures regularly done at Shedd during fish health exams.
“One of my goals has always been to be as well-rounded a veterinarian as possible.”Dr. Matt O'Connor, staff veterinarian
Then it was on to South Africa. “The last two weeks of the program are spent in a developing country, applying some of the conservation medicine we’d learned,” Dr. Matt explains. Experts flew in to give lectures, then hung out with the students for more informal exchanges. “The coursework was great,” Dr. Matt says, “but I got even more out of the evening conversations. I still run into some of the lecturers and catch up with them.” One of them would write the recommendation for Dr. Matt’s residency.
By the time Dr. Matt finished his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, he had worked with invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals large and small, domestic and wild. And his heart was still set on exotics.
Coming back to the Chicago area, he responded to an opening at Animal House of Chicago, on the city’s North Side. He notes that there are several fine exotics-only animal hospitals in the Chicago area, but he was drawn to Animal House’s client mix of 60 percent exotic animals and 40 percent domestic pets. “I’d be able to do some dog and cat medicine too so that I didn’t forget it,” he says.
The experience was so rewarding that Dr. Matt stayed four years instead of the two he’d planned on. “But I’d always dreamed of working at a zoo, so it was time to move on.”
“I’d be able to do some dog and cat medicine too so that I didn’t forget it, but I’d always dreamed of working at a zoo, so it was time to move on.”Dr. Matt O'Connor, staff veterinarian
Before he could get a residency, he realized that he would need more research experience. He got into the Masters of Preventive Veterinary Medicine program at UC Davis. In addition to studying statistics, epidemiology and research protocols, Dr. Matt did his master’s thesis on a vaccine for a deadly virus affecting koi, getting a chance to work with an advisor renowned for fish medicine.
While his dream job was to work at one of Chicago’s big three zoological organizations, he says, “This field is competitive and job openings are rare.” He accepted a residency at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), “where I’d get exposure to a little bit of everything, and if a job came up at either a zoo or an aquarium, I’d be competitive for the position.”
At the end, it led to a job at Shedd.
“It’s such a great opportunity to be back home and work for an organization that I grew up in awe of!”
At Shedd, he says enthusiastically, “I get to combine all my interests: I do a lot of clinical medicine, take care of an amazing collection of animals and teach residents in the shared program with Brookfield Zoo and the University of Illinois. I also look forward to opportunities to help in Shedd’s conservation research program like the iguana research in the Bahamas. I’ve always been impressed with Shedd’s Great Lakes work, too, and I’m excited to help out with that.”
He also has had his first opportunity to work with sea otters and beluga whales—who also happen to be among the animals he grew up visiting here. He looks forward to continuing and making new lifelong relationships among Shedd’s 32,000 animals.
“It’s hard to describe, but the connection you develop with some of these critters is quite amazing. It’s really great when you have a successful outcome for a difficult case and years later you see that animal have offspring. That’s what I’m looking forward to, the long-term follow-up.
“But as much as I love working with animals,” he continues, “I love working with people even more. We have a common goal in providing these animals with the best care possible, but as a part of the team I’m there for the aquarists and trainers too, and that’s what means the most to me.”
—Karen Furnweger, web editor