For Erika Gebhard, it is a dream come true to spend her days among turtles, giraffes, elephants, dogs, cats and other animals. But what’s even better for the Mill Valley resident is that she’s helping them live happier, higher-quality lives through her work as a physical rehabilitation veterinarian at the Oakland Zoo and Animal Care and Emergency Services in San Francisco, as well as assisting in making individualized plans and using different 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 the California Academy of Sciences about penguins, red pandas, and Komodo dragons.
Passionate about mobility, geriatric medicine and pain management, Gebhard started working in that field around 2014.
Q Have you always been attracted to animals?
A I wanted to be a vet ever since I learned what a vet was. I used to drag my parents to the zoo and my grandmother took me on safari to Africa, which was just fantastic. When I was younger I worked at the San Francisco Zoo and in high school at the Marin Academy I worked at WildCare in San Rafael.
Q Why did you want to become a veterinarian?
A I’ve always loved animals, but I wanted to do something where I could make a difference. I also like science. It just made sense. And then I started doing what I do now and felt even more.
Q How did you get into your field?
A As a kid we always got our pets at the San Francisco SPCA and I got a job right next to school there. I started doing pain management and got an acupuncture certificate, so I started doing both western and integrated medicine. My friend and classmate from Davis opened a clinic and asked, “Hey, do you want to go into rehab?” It was a perfect fit – injury prevention, pain management and mobility medicine – so I took that job and this is what I’m doing now. Much of what I do is educate and improve not only my patient, but others as well. It’s a lot of collaboration between zoos and the vet community and it really helps to move all vet medicine forward as a team. It feels good.
Q You look at these animals with a holistic approach.
A Yes. We made a prosthesis for a crow. We’ve done braces, slings and harnesses, surgeries, meds, and everything. I will use everything in my tool belt. You can’t always do the same exercises on a brown bear that you would on a dog, but it’s kind of remarkably similar and you can accomplish many of the same goals.
Q I bet it never gets old to see these animals feeling better.
A It is the best. And not just animals. To see owners walking their pets again or seeing an elephant that can lie down and rest and get up and walk back into a herd, to see them and the people who love and care for them to restore that relationship to have, it’s great.
Q I heard you’ve been working on a arthritic elephant.
A Elephants are one of the major focal points of the work we do at the Oakland Zoo. Looking at how we age gracefully? I think we embrace that as humans and now we’re bringing in animals too. Age is not a number, how can we maintain comfortable mobility and independence as much as possible? The Oakland Zoo team is brilliant, it just makes the job so much easier and more fun. I go to the keepers and say, “OK, here’s my idea (for this animal), just tell me if you think it’s crazy.” And nine times out of ten I come back later and they have come up with 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 incredible experience. He did well. Really humbling and rewarding. He will always have a 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 nice.