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Where the Pandas Are

updated 06/25/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Routine annual checkups? Not on Dr. Lucy Spelman's watch. One large patient's jaw twitched while she was anesthetized for a teeth-cleaning, causing her canines to clamp down and puncture Spelman's hand. Another, a cranky 475-lb. cardiac case, throws more than a fit when he sees her. "Mopi poops and flings it at me," says Spelman. "I always remember to keep my mouth closed and wear a mask." Small wonder her own Labrador retrievers can go a little nuts when she gets home. "Dogs are all about smell," she says. "Tucker and Kelby are very aware I've been somewhere way interesting."

Interesting? It's a jungle out there in Washington, D.C.'s National Zoological Park. But that's where Spelman, 38, promoted a year ago from chief veterinarian to the zoo's first woman director, is most at home—among sharp-fanged Sumatran tigresses like the one that involuntarily bit her (the hand was bandaged and Spelman worked on a rhino the next day) and gorillas that go ape when they see her tranquilizer-dart gun before their exams. Spelman, who oversees the needs of 3,500 creatures and 475 species, is "compassionwise, the best I've seen here," says veteran zoo-keeper Brenda Morgan, who last December accompanied Spelman to the bamboo forests of China's Sichuan Province to import the zoo's frisky new superstars, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Lawrence Small, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which funds 80 percent of the zoo's $27 million budget (the rest is donated), says his pick makes sense. "Lucy blends technical knowledge with being a compelling communicator," he says. "I've seen her with members of Congress, private-sector donors, kids—they all respond to her wonderfully."

For her part, Spelman hopes to transform the 112-year-old zoo into a world-class mecca of ecoconservation. A core goal: to make habitats more comfortable for animals while stimulating their natural behaviors. Termites, for example, could be buried, she says, "so that people can see and hear bears rooting them out." The price: "One hundred million dollars to bring the zoo up to modernization. We have to pick up the pace."

Keeping pace with Spelman isn't easy. "She's inexhaustible," says associate director for animal programs Dr. Benjamin Beck. She often logs 16-hour days running the zoo and stays hands-on (if not in) with her veterinary team's cases, which may include root-canal work for bears and lions, EKGs for male gorillas prone to heart disease, and whipping up a tasty mash packed with a day's 100,000-mg. dose of antibiotics to treat an elephant's kidney infection. Spelman connects to her charges with the soft-touch affection of a beast-whisperer, but her focus is fierce. "Animals in captivity deserve the absolute best care," she says. "That's what motivated me to be a zoo vet. If a creature is to be impacted by humans, we have the technology and knowledge to give it an excellent quality of life." Her vision is to raise not just money and attendance but awareness too. "I have an incredible chance to make a difference in how we regard endangered species—if we want to have a planet with anything on it other than cement, crows, rodents and pine trees," she explains. "The zoo is a fun way to get people to think about that."

Spelman's love of creatures great and small took hold early on. Lucy Hamilton Spelman was born in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 8, 1963, the second of three children. Her mother, Mary, now 67, wrote a dozen young-adult novels (as Mary Towne), and her father, James, who battled heart disease before dying at 75 last February, owned an upscale toy store in nearby Westport. Home was an old farmhouse on 14 acres in West Redding, where the menagerie included two horses, rabbits, cats and dogs. Besides watching TV's Wild Kingdom and reading British vet James Herriot's books, she pursued tennis, violin and drawing. Says pal Kathleen Barlow: "If we weren't out riding bikes or horses, Lucy had a cool dollhouse and cool crayons."

And cool ideas about pets. When she was 10, her father brought home a baby goat who refused milk from a bottle. "It was crisis mode," says Mary, adding that just before Dad left to return the hungry kid, Lucy stepped in. "She persuaded him to go back and buy the mother. She was determined to have those goats."

Spelman went on to study biology at Brown University in Providence, graduating in 1985. She earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis five years later. In 1995, after a three-year residency at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh and North Carolina State Zoological Park in Asheboro, she joined the National Zoo. Her most famous patient was Hsing-Hsing the panda, a gift from China during the Nixon Administration (along with Ling-Ling, who died in 1992). Hsing-Hsing's arthritis made it painful for him to sit up and crunch bamboo. Spelman's Rx—an arthritis drug for dogs—eased his pain. "I'd go in at night and wait till my eyes adjusted so I could see bamboo flipping in the dark. He was happy as a clam."

But by November 1999 she decided—with zoo support—to euthanize Hsing-Hsing, then 28 and battling heart and kidney failure. "Tears were flowing," she says, but her own pain was eased by knowing she had done all she could. "I was on a mission—to make sure he didn't suffer a day on this planet. Hsing-Hsing was an amazing, gentle beast—and a real ham."

The new pandas on the block, who will be coaxed to mate, are already working the crowds, helping since their Jan. 10 debut to draw 1 million-plus people to the zoo. Spelman says pandas delight zoo-goers with their cuddly looks, eerily human dining skills and playful natures. "Tian Tian climbed a tree and sat out on a limb the other day," she says. "His mission was to break branches. He bounced until he busted it and fell five feet, then rolled down the hill playing with his branch."

Spelman lives near the zoo in her own one-bedroom-with-loft habitat. On the walls are a framed elephant footprint and a colorful sketch by a local artist—Linda the orangutan. A squash ace at Brown, Spelman unwinds by playing tennis and golf, painting watercolors, birding, hiking, cycling and eating vegetarian dinners with close pals. Romance is harder to pencil in. Spelman reports she's in "sampling mode" and "comfortable with my lifestyle." Says her old college friend Ali Hill: "For 15 years Lucy has focused on getting to where she is. That's taken more sacrifice than most of us are willing to make. I wish she could find Mr. Perfect. I'm convinced someone will walk into her life."

Someone willing, no doubt, to share the good doctor with her 3,500 significant others. "I'm definitely not going to be easy to package," she admits. "I've never wanted to change my path. That person would have to have a feel for my connection to the animal world. That's what makes my life richer. There aren't a lot of people as passionate about that as I am."

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