Women's History Month

Animals’ Ally in the Ocean State: A tail of unsung devotion to animal welfare

The stories sounded like something out of a National Geographic: “When I was working with the mountain gorillas…” “I hurt myself chasing giant pandas through a forest in China…” “I’m going down to help with the Giant River Otters…” That’s how she began her stories. She wasn’t braggadocios. She simply remarked on her past as if it had been that time she helped a baby bird back to its nest. It felt like she was describing the things she had experienced as mortal in their efforts, and I only saw her as a heroine akin to Captain Planet. Growing up, all I wanted to be was a veterinarian. I wanted to travel the world, and treat every animal in my Zoobooks magazines: tigers, lions, and bears, oh my! I didn’t know it at the time, but I wanted to be Dr. Lucy Spelman.

Animals have always been part of her life, and her experiences with them include taking care of giant pandas in China, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and river otters in Guyana. She has worked as a zoo veterinarian, a zoo director, a wildlife veterinarian, a media consultant, a writer, and an educator. In addition to various scientific articles, she is the author of the National Geographic Kids’ Animal Encyclopedia, and co-editor of a book of short stories, The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes. Dr. Spelman is also the founder and executive director of Creature Conserve: a creative community that combines art with science to cultivate new pathways for wildlife conservation.

Dr. Spelman attended Brown University where she received her bachelor’s degree in biology. She then received her veterinary degree from UC Davis. Dr. Spelman continued her education further, going on to complete an internship in small animal medicine at Ettinger and associates in Los Angeles, and a residency in zoological medicine at NC State University in Raleigh. In 1994, she received her board certification from the American College of Zoological Medicine. She is one of a handful to earn this prestige in the world. 

At the age of 41, Dr. Lucy Spelman became the first and youngest woman to run the Smithsonian Institution’s’ National Zoo. She spent a decade working for the National Zoo before becoming a media consultant for Discovery Communications. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Rwanda where she served as the field manager for Gorilla Doctors/Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. During this time, Dr. Spelman identified a need for greater communication about how human health, animal health, and ecosystem health are one and the same. In her TEDx Talk Art Can Save a Panda, Dr. Spelman explains,“I’m looking at my [first] sick gorilla, and I heard a human baby crying, and then I heard a car go by…It reinforced this idea that there is no separation between humans and wild animals(…) We have to understand that humans, gorillas, and environmental health are connected, and that conservation is about embracing that idea of health [being] both a physical health and well-being, and economic health…and this is when I decided I wanted to teach. “  

Dr. Spelman returned to the United States to teach at Brown University, and then moved on to the Rhode Island School of Design where she has taught biology to art and design students since 2010. “It’s been my students and the many, many professors that I collaborate with, at Rhode Island School of Design, that I’ve learned (…) that conservation is part art, and part science,” she comments in her TEDx Talk. I started off thinking that conservation was a science, and in most of my career I worked with scientists, but now…the way we learn about the natural world, the way we take in the world around us, how we interact with it, how we feel about it, is both through the sciences, and through the arts, and we need to combine those two.”

Currently, Dr. Spelman still teaches with her unending love of education, and ceaseless passion for animal welfare. She has worked as a clinician at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists since 2011, and in 2018 became a National Geographic Explorer and Expert for Great Apes of Rwanda and Uganda. The dream within a dream of every child who has ever wanted to save animals. Through her academic contributions, mentorship, and leadership in various conservation initiatives, Dr. Lucy Spelman has left an indelible mark on the field. Her work not only aids in the conservation of endangered species but also inspires future generations of veterinarians and conservationists to continue the vital work of preserving our natural world. “I think this is where we need to put art and science together to explore what’s happening to animals, and what can we do about it… What’s going to motivate us to take action is if we truly understand what’s happening, and we truly understand that there are solutions.”