Potter Park Zoo Veterinary Department and Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU CVM): 50 years of collaboration honored with Distinguished Partnership Award for Community-Engaged Research. 

Spanning 50 years, the partnership between MSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Potter Park Zoo is special. This relationship was honored recently with the Distinguished Partnership Award for Community-Engaged Research. Dr. Dalen Agnew, a pathologist with expertise in zoo animals and chair of MSU Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, is a strong proponent of the relationship, and spearheaded the award application.

Only a handful of veterinary schools have had such a long and productive relationship with a nearby zoo. Dr. Jim Sikarskie, MSU’s first zoo and wildlife veterinarian, was instrumental in creating this relationship. Dr. Sikarskie was hired in 1975 by the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, and taught zoo and wildlife courses for 44 years. He also provided the veterinary care for the zoo until 2003, when Potter Park Zoo hired its first full time veterinarian Dr. Tara Harrison. Dr Harrison is now a zoo and wildlife faculty member at the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine.

The impact of this relationship helped nurture the careers of many successful zoo and wildlife veterinarians. Few veterinary schools have had such an impact on the field of zoo veterinary medicine.

“The MSU and Potter Park Zoo partnership allowed for unique educational opportunities for MSU’s veterinary students. These veterinary students developed a great respect for the zoo’s animals and have gone on to promote the skills they learned at Potter Park. Many of these students went on to become zoo veterinarians themselves,” said Dr. Harrison.

With Dr. Sikarskie’s retirement in 2019, the school’s long role in shaping zoo medicine was ensured when he recruited two nearby zoo veterinarians and adjunct College faculty to continue his work at MSU. These included Dr. Ronan Eustace (Director of Animal Health for Potter Park Zoo) and Dr. Kim Thompson (zoo veterinarian at Binder Park Zoo).

“As Dr. Sikarskie’s final resident, I am honored to continue building on his legacy of providing educational opportunities for MSU veterinary students. When we present students with cases in non-domestic species, it helps foster the ability for them to think outside of the box and how to research and approach the unfamiliar, both skills which will help them as veterinarians no matter what field they go into,” said Dr. Kim Thompson.

Over the years, countless veterinary medicine and nursing students, interns, and residents have worked with the zoo’s veterinary department and college faculty to learn about zoo medicine and conservation issues affecting endangered species.

“When students get up close to a rhino or tiger, it’s a memorable and transformative experience-often turning the students into advocates for conservation. The zoo cases are an opportunity to discuss larger issues, such as the role of biodiversity in protecting human health and the interdependence of human, animal, and ecosystem health (One Health) with the students,” said Dr. Eustace.

During the 50 years of collaboration between PPZ and MSU, numerous students, interns, and residents have collaborated on zoo medicine studies that resulted in scientific publications. With each publication describing a novel condition, the medicine and care provided for these endangered species is improved and the sustainability of these captive zoo populations is strengthened.

The future looks bright for a continued collaboration between the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Potter Park Zoo, as well as a growing relationship with Binder Park Zoo. Potter Park Zoo is making plans for a much-needed new veterinary hospital that will include space to host classes, run training clerkships for veterinary students, and facilitate future research studies. A new hospital would provide the resources needed to strengthen the relationship between Potter Park Zoo’s veterinary department and MSU CVM, allowing Dr. Sikarskie’s and MSU CVM’s legacy of creating new zoo and wildlife veterinarians to continue. To those interested in making a contribution to the zoo’s animal health efforts, please visit: or contact Amy Morris-Hall at 517-795-6122.