Purdue College of Science
Jan Ramer doesn't monkey around on the job. Instead, as a veterinarian at the Indianapolis Zoo, she spends her time around monkeys, apes and other animals, recently taking a leave from her job to spend two years in Africa watching over the health and welfare of the endangered gorilla population.
Ramer, one of the associate veterinarians at the Indianapolis Zoo, cares for all of the park's residents, but is especially smitten with the primates, which she reveres as "smart, beautiful and complicated." From 2009 to 2011, she further immersed herself in their world as regional manager of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.
"As gorilla doctors, we made a real difference. We worked with the wildlife authorities to directly save lives of some of the most endangered great apes on earth. I'm so very lucky to have had this opportunity," she says.
Ramer (BS '78, biology) didn't veer far from her childhood dream of being a veterinarian or zookeeper. She enrolled in Purdue's prevet program and, the summer after freshman year, took a course in animal behavior at Tippecanoe County's Wolf Park. The topic fascinated her, and that fall she adjusted her major to biology so she could further study animal behavior.
After Purdue, she took a job as a camp counselor in the Indianapolis Zoo's education department, moving within four months to a position as a zookeeper working primarily with primates and elephants. Keepers are the front line in the health and welfare of zoo animals. They feed, clean and develop a rapport with the animals. After two years, she moved to Chicago's Brookfield Zoo where, for the next decade, she worked in the primate department, eventually becoming lead zookeeper in that area. She adored the job, but rising through the ranks had its drawbacks.
"As I moved up, I became more and more distant from the animals and was doing more managerial work," she says. She longed to be more hands-on, and was inspired by a friend who had graduated from veterinary school as a returning student.
Married, with two young children -- who are now 23 and 26 -- Ramer applied to veterinary programs, choosing ultimately to attend the University of Wisconsin. She recalls a dean calling to tell her of acceptance on a day when her 2-year-old was crying, her 5-year-old was throwing food on the floor, and her dog was barking. Some people would call that environment a zoo; Ramer was right at home.
"I put my daughter on a kindergarten school bus the day I started vet school," she says.
After receiving her DVM in 1995, she worked as a veterinarian in Wisconsin, then, in 1999, came full circle and returned to the Indianapolis Zoo. She is one of three veterinarians on the staff and also one among a tight-knit community of 400 or so zoo and wildlife veterinarians nationwide. She became a Diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine in 2007.
In addition to her special interest in primates, Ramer is intensely involved in conservation of the Ricord's iguana, an endangered species native to the Dominican Republic and the focus of a long partnership between the Indianapolis Zoo and the Caribbean nation. She finds the animals fascinating and is collaborating with a zoo colleague to publish research on vitamin D, a survey of the animals on the island, and their diet.
During her recent two-year leave in Africa, Ramer's focus was on primates. Her journey to Africa began in 1985, during a trip to Madagascar while working at the Brookfield Zoo. On her way home, she stopped in Rwanda to see the great apes and meet famed zoologist Dian Fossey. She always wanted to return and was elated when presented with the opportunity to work with the MGVP. Her husband, Bob Newell, a public defender for the Marion County juvenile court in Indianapolis, stayed behind.
As regional manager overseeing 10 veterinarians in three countries, Ramer was based at the MGVP Headquarters compound in Rwanda. The staff was spread between there, DRC and Uganda. On a weekly basis the "Gorilla Doctors," as they were known, would travel into the forest to view the gorilla groups, do a visual check for illness and injury, and were available to treat an animal in the field when necessary. The gorillas were never taken out of their environment.
Due to the environmentally and politically sensitive nature of the gorilla population, decisions to treat were made after phone consultations with national wildlife authorities or research centers. Once a plan was approved, Ramer and her colleagues would go to the gorillas with trackers, a protection team and rangers. "It was an amazing experience," she says.
In addition to caring for gorillas in the wild, Ramer and the team also cared for gorillas seized from black market operations; babies left orphaned in the DRC. The babies, a year or so old, were often emotionally and physically traumatized, bearing gunshot wounds and the scars of having been separated from their parents. After treatment, the orphans went to a rehab facility. Many of them remain close to her heart, she says.
"Being the regional veterinary manager was the hardest job I've ever had," she says. "It was physically difficult and emotionally exhausting. Working with three cultures and wildlife authorities had its challenges, and gorillas are a high-profile animal where everything you do is under a microscope. Those challenges made it the most rewarding job I've ever had."