University professor and Como Zoo veterinarian retires

Ralph “Doc” Farnsworth spent more than 40 years as the zoo’s primary veterinarian.

Flying in planes with gorillas, pushing pregnant elks on a scooter and chasing down escaped orangutans are only a few of the stories Ralph Farnsworth can recall from his 46 years as a University professor and Como Zoo’s primary veterinarian.

Farnsworth, nicknamed “Doc,” retired Monday, having seen drastic changes in zoo animal medicine and student interest up close.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman declared July 14, 2008, as “Ralph ‘Doc’ Farnsworth Day” in a note sent to the professor.

Those who worked with Farnsworth shared their memories of working with Farnsworth during a celebration Monday evening.

Zoo faculty said they were thankful to Farnsworth for the advice he had given them, including the fact that polar bears can sometimes pretend they’re sleeping, but they’ll pounce at the last minute.

University professor Micky Trent, who will take over as the zoo’s primary veterinarian, reflected on an incident where Casey the gorilla escaped, and as Farnsworth and Casey stared each other down, the gorilla was the one to back down and return to its enclosure.

Joking about other scares with the animals, Trent said Farnsworth knows he can outrun Trent, making her the perfect partner to have when working with large zoo animals.

Before working with lions, tigers and bears, Farnsworth grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio, and took over when his father passed away when Farnsworth was 14. Though he had planned to return to the farm after attending Ohio State University, Farnsworth instead came to the University of Minnesota, where he eventually began teaching.

Farnsworth said he took his students to the zoo with him sometimes and noticed a larger interest in zoo medicine than in his early days. He said that now there are more zoo veterinarians than positions available.

The University provides a couple of zoo courses, and Como Zoo’s proximity to the Large Animal Hospital provides a strong tie to the school, Farnsworth said.

The professor said that treating zoo animals is about “the bigger picture,” noting that zoos have focused more on conservation and preservation efforts than they had previously.

He added that some animals can survive more successfully in zoos than in the wild.

Farnsworth also compared his thoughts on his career to his days on the dairy farm.

It’s not so much the dairy cows, he said – it’s the families that depend on the cows for milk.

He likened that to families being educated at zoos about endangered species – something he called a zoo’s most important function.

While Farnsworth sometimes made late-night trips to the zoo and did weekly checkups, the animals weren’t always friendly.

“That’s the down side,” he said. “Most of them don’t like you because you’re doing things they don’t like.”

He said he has seen many changes in zoos since he first began his career, particularly in the advancement of medicine.

“When I started,” he said, “it was hard to handle animals.”

Eventually, improved mobilization medicine was established, making the handling and procedures easier.

John Dee, curator of Como Zoo, said Farnsworth’s openness to new ideas has kept the zoo in line with the advancements of zoo medicine.

Farnsworth has not completely left the zoo, however. Como’s campus manager Mike Hahm handed Farnsworth his volunteer badge on Monday – symbolically letting him know he’s still part of the zoo’s family.