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Ryan Colburn, MacGyver of the vet world

Zoo School graduate comes full circle

Ryan Colburn enjoys board games, taking in the movies, spending time with his family …

… and sticking his head nearly into the mouths of grizzly bears named Yogi and Boo-Boo, to make sure their teeth and gums are healthy.

He’ll also manipulate their arms and legs –- we’re talking about specimens who weigh upwards of 700 pounds — to determine if they’re having any trouble with their joints, and put a stethoscope on ‘em to make sure their tickers are in working order.

“You know, it’s just basic routine care,” says Dr. Colburn. “Check-ups, dental care, making sure everyone is healthy.”

Meet the MacGyver of the vet world, the only full-time veterinarian at the John Ball Zoo, and the man behind the scenes who makes sure that some 1,500 animals are physically fit for your viewing pleasure.

Significantly, he’s also a graduate of Zoo School located on the same 100-plus-acre grounds, a special touchstone for Grand Rapids Public Schools, which had the foresight and vision to embrace the zoo as a working classroom. Since Zoo School’s inception more than 40 years ago, hundreds of sixth-graders have taken advantage of its rigorous curriculum and hands-on, practice-driven classroom workshops.

Dr. Ryan Colburn and one of his many beloved animal patients at John Ball Zoo

Early on-the-job Experience

That would include Colburn, who while enrolled at Seymour Christian Elementary, got the nod to attend, and remembers how the experience fueled an interest  in animals that dates to his days as a fourth-grader.

That’s when he began volunteering at Woodland Veterinary Clinic near his family’s Kentwood area home, where his aunt was a dog groomer. “I tagged along, and my job was to conduct playtime with the cats and dogs being boarded there. I’d give them some love and attention, and then write a note to the owners.”

He stayed on through the eighth grade there, working his way up to the role of “kennel attendant” before heading to Grand Rapids Christian High School. While at Zoo School, he expanded his expertise with cats and dogs into a menagerie that included birds and reptiles and exotics.

“I learned not just about animals, but their environments, and the importance of being a good steward, and caring for their habitat,” he says.

He credits the late Dennis Kretschman, aka “Mr. K” -– who taught at Zoo School the better part of four decades — for instilling a passion within him to follow a path that would eventually lead to veterinary school at Michigan State University. Mr. K. died suddenly last January, but not before introducing Colburn to a entirely different educational culture.

“I’d come from Christian schools, where we sang hymns and faith-based songs,” says Colburn. “And with Mr. K., all of a sudden we’re singing ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ and songs like ‘Margaritaville.’”

He smiles. “I still have the songbook.”

Colburn also thrilled to Zoo School campouts, where he learned outdoor skills like how to create shelter and build a fire -– “basically how to enjoy nature.”

One of his biggest joys: “the fall project, where you did a leaf collection.” He grins again. “I tortured my father into helping me find every leaf type.”

John Ball Zoo vet Dr. Ryan Colburn checks the heartbeat of a 6-month-old chicken, while vet technician Kaylee DeBoef holds her

Paying it Forward

In spontaneous ways, Colburn is able to share anecdotes like that with the current cohort of sixth-graders at Zoo School, and cherishes the interactions he has with those boys and girls.

“When encountering a student or running into a group of them, it’s important to stop so that we get to know one another, and that’s true of zookeepers and anyone else who works here,” he says.

“It’s fun to share the passion of what we do, and give them the chance to see us in action, and allow them to think to themselves, ‘Hey, that’s something I might want to do.’”

Colburn is eager to engage Zoo School students even more in the future, now that he’s mastered much of the learning curve that comes with his territory as a vet. He explains, “One of my goals for the 2018-2019 school year is to formalize that process, and build my role to a greater extent into the curriculum.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in biology from Calvin College in 2006, and graduating from MSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 2010, Colburn already had experience culled from an internship at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Grand Rapids. It was there he “worked a lot of ER cases, and built my skills and knowledge.”

While enrolled at MSU he also served rotations at the Detroit Zoo and on Sanibel Island in Florida.

‘I learned not just about animals, but their environments, and the importance of being a good steward, and caring for their habitat.’ — veterinarian Ryan Colburn of his days at Zoo School

He applied for an opening at John Ball while still a student at MSU, a position that didn’t fill immediately. He kept nudging people in charge of hiring after he graduated, and lo and behold, secured the job in large part due to his persistence.

Zookeeper Kristi Koole holds 26-year-old Pete, the Magellanic penguin, while Dr. Ryan Colburn gives him an exam

An All-Animal Go-to Guy

Since coming on board in January of 2012, he’s not only worked full-time, but been on call virtually every day. One recent weekend, for example, he was summoned to perform surgery to remove part of a chewy toy from a lynx.

He’s performed cataract surgery on a penguin, amputated part of  parakeet’s toe, treated eye disease in rock fish, and provided cancer treatment for a 100-pound rodent known as a capybara.

And on and on and on, including check-ups for everything from starfish to bald eagles to his personal favorites, the big cats.

Perhaps his biggest day-to-day challenge is responding to needs for which there are few standard protocols. When asked how often he “Googles” for information, he answers “daily.” He also relies on a wide network of other zoo veterinarians -– there are only a limited number worldwide -– for advice. “We’re always collaborating,” he says.

“I’ve also amassed a pretty significant library,” says Colburn, admitting that “I have a small addiction to textbooks.”

Bottom line? He’s got to be inventive and spontaneous, noting that zoo vets often refer to themselves as “the MacGyvers of the vet world.”

Colburn looks at a frog X-ray at the Animal Hospital at John Ball Zoo

Menagerie at Home, Too

A bachelor, Colburn shares a home with a younger brother, and remains tight with a second brother as well as his parents -– Edwin, a math teacher for East Kentwood Public Schools, and mother Kelli Koets-Colburn, a social worker for GRPS.

When Colburn has time off from the zoo, you might think he’d take a break from animals. Fat chance, when you’ve got a personal menagerie of five cats, two rats and a parrotlet.

Colburn enjoys his role as an active participant on the zoo’s senior management team, where he gets to weigh in on current and future projects, and which sometimes means rubbing shoulder with patrons and benefactors.

He also teaches veterinary classes at Baker College in Muskegon, though he missed the last graduation ceremony when his friend Morticia came down with stomach problems.

Colburn launched into action on an evening that happened to double as the annual “RendeZoo” party for benefactors, the zoo’s largest fundraiser.

While partygoers sipped and munched and bid on auction items, Colburn was up to his arms at the zoo hospital, removing obstructions from a lovable warthog named “Morticia.”

Sadly, Morticia passed several months after valiantly fighting her afflictions. But it wasn’t lost on zoo personnel that without Colburn’s intervention, she likely would have succumbed much sooner.

The average life span for a warthog in the wild is between seven and 11 years, while most those in captivity are fortunate to make it to 15.

Thanks in large part to Colburn, Morticia the warthog celebrated 17 birthdays.


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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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