Interview with Dr. Mark Goldstein About Lions and Tigers and Hamsters

"I wanted to pull back the curtain a little bit on some of these questions... It was all centred around two things: life lessons learned as a veterinarian and the human-animal bond."

An interview with veterinarian Dr. Mark Goldstein (pictured) about his book Lions and  Tigers and Hamsters
Dr. Mark Goldstein, author of Lions and Tigers and Hamsters. Photo: Janie DeCelles

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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An interview with Dr. Mark Goldstein about his book Lions and Tigers and Hamsters: What Animals Large and Small Taught Me About Life, Love, and Humanity. We talked about the human-animal bond, challenges for animal welfare, why veterinarians are at risk of depression and suicide, and favourite stories from the book.

Zazie: I really loved your book, and I’m going to ask you in a moment why you decided to write it, but I have to start with the elephant, because the book starts with an amazing story about this elephant called Donia who almost ended your veterinary career. Tell me about Donia.

Dr. Mark: Donia was an Asian elephant. She was a matriarch on an island of 8 elephants and she had a permanent impact on my life and career, in a positive way, surprisingly. She was a beautiful animal but she was an elephant protecting her herd. I went on to do some work and I was in a hurry. I didn’t follow the rules. People shouldn’t misunderstand, it’s not like every elephant does this, but she was used to having anyone come on to her island come up to her, greet her, take her ear, have her smell their feet, and we thought that’s how she told us apart, we presumed that, and then let her walk in front of you while you held her ear. I was in a hurry, I was precocious. I didn’t hit her, I tapped her on the trunk and said “Donia, I’m here to pick up the feed pail,” and walked away.

And I understand in retrospect I broke the rules. It was like at that point I was a mosquito in her house, and what do most people do with mosquitoes in their house? They take care of them, in a not polite fashion. And she did the same. She picked me up with her trunk. She didn’t curl her trunk around me. What she did is I got hit by 12000 pounds, which is approximately what she weighed, and she picked me up with her trunk and threw me about 30 feet, 20 feet in the air.  Fortunately she threw me to the edge of the island, because when she ran over, and I think it’s important – I like to teach about animals when I have the opportunity – and in this case, elephants, it’s one of their defences. They don’t have many predators really besides humans and big cats, lions in Africa and tigers in Asia. And they’ll throw one to the ground and then put their head on them and do a headstand. So when people see elephants doing headstands, for instance in circuses which I’m not a proponent of, when they see that behaviour it’s a natural behaviour. So her head started to come down on me. She actually positioned me with her feet. And she started to come down with her head.

And this is where training is so important. It was one of the many lessons I’ve learned from this experience. Somewhere in the back of my mind even though I was in shock, I had a broken arm at this point, I had all kinds of things, something in the back of my mind said if you want to get her attention poke her in the eyes, which I did. And that caused her to lift her head long enough for me to roll off the island. And yes it’s true I rolled into a canal of water which is populated with alligators. So people who know animals, alligators really are very shy, they go the other way. If it was crocodiles I wouldn’t be able to humourously be telling this story today.

The cover of the book Lions and Tigers and Hamsters by Dr. Mark Goldstein

And once I was off the island, she didn’t care. It wasn’t aggression, it was protection, and she took care of the problem. I remember being in the hospital, and ever since, when talking, people ask one of two questions at first. And it tells me a lot about them. Some people immediately ask, “How was Donia?” after what I did to her. And that tells me a lot about the person caring about the animal. And the other question is usually, “Did they put her down? Did they punish her?” And my reaction from day one was wait a second, I made the mistake. She was carrying out a normal behaviour. And I remember going through a thought process that summer, recovering from my injuries. This is my calling, I understand what she did, I want to know more about animal behaviour, I want to do more to help animals. Because there was no aggression here. It just reinforced to me that these are sentient, caring individuals who, more often than not, act like humans in protecting their herd, in protecting their young, in protecting their habitat. It was actually a great learning lesson at somewhat great expense!

"The goldfish story to me is the best way in my mind to get across to people who aren’t necessarily even animal people... how important animals are in our life."

Zazie: It’s an amazing story, and for people who haven’t read the book yet, I don’t think this is a spoiler. How was Donia?

Dr. Mark: How was Donia? She was fine! In fact if you look at the last sentence in my book, it’s “And for those who wonder, Donia was fine”. She went on to live a normal life for decades more.

Zazie: I was glad to read that. Thank you that’s a brilliant story. So why did you decide to write this book?

Dr. Mark: Well it actually ties back to Donia in one respect. One of the things that she left me with, if one were to look at a radiograph, or an X ray as you call it, of my neck at the time I was 60 – and I’m 66 – my spinal cord in my neck, because I had landed on my head probably, was starting to really disarticulate the bones. I needed to have surgery. And it took me a year to accept that because it was major surgery. They have to take a vertebra out and do something and I’m doing fine. I have to start with that, it was really the right thing to do. But in going through that process, one of the things that my kids really encouraged me to do, is they said “Dad, you’re such a great story teller, and you’ve got such great stories and you’re so passionate about the human-animal bond, why don’t you write them down?” And the stimulus for that were my grandkids.

"To deliver animal care, we have to be people persons and animal persons."

If people ask me, the simple answer to why’d you write your book, I truly wrote it for my grandkids that are now 4 and 7 years old. And I wanted them to know who Dr./Poppa Mark was when they got older. So I started writing. And what I realized is, I really enjoyed it. I found out that as I started to relate these stories, what I did is I first sat down when I was interested in doing something. I first sat down and wrote one sentence for every story that I would like to tell. And then next to it I put what life lesson did I learn from it? Because in my mind, I’m wanting to share with my grandchildren and eventually share with the world, was what life lessons did I learn from each of these stories. And I went a little bit further as I started writing them, then every fourth or fifth chapter I asked a question. Like, why do we have zoos and aquariums? You know I was president of the humane society and I was asked that often, “Dr. Mark, why do we have zoos and aquariums?” And I like that question, it shows people care. And I asked the question of should homeless people have pets? Why does veterinary medicine cost what it does. It gave me an opportunity to share 40 years of an incredible life, which I would live over without a doubt. And I wanted to pull back the curtain a little bit on some of these questions and some of these things that people ask. It was all centred around two things: life lessons learned as a veterinarian and the human-animal bond, which is still so important to me.

An interview with Dr. Mark Goldstein about his book, Lions and Tigers and Hamsters. Quote from Baba Dioum

Zazie: I’m really glad you decided to write it and you are an amazing story teller. It must be quite hard to choose, but if there is one particular story that is your favourite, which one is it?

Dr. Mark: It is hard to choose because every one of them means something to me and in different settings. The one that often comes to the top and I think is most impactful, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s just my favourite, is the goldfish story.

Zazie: That’s my favourite too.

Dr. Mark: I did surgery on a goldfish. And people go, “Come on, Mark, it’s a goldfish.” It’s name was Oscar, and most people at this point in their minds go to the fact that you could unceremoniously (and inappropriately I feel) flush him down the toilet, why would anyone do that. And when they realize in the first 5 minutes of my exam after bringing this goldfish into the room, and I think people will have fun reading the story because there’s even a how he came into my room etc., but here was the tank. I looked at this fancy goldfish which I know lives 10-15 years, and I saw a tumour off his gills. It was starting to make him swim inappropriately and it was growing, it would eventually take his soul. And within 5 minutes after looking at this adult woman who had been crying, my assumption was she had been told “Come on, what are you doing? You can just get another one” or “They’re going to laugh at you and there’s nothing they can do”. And she quickly got across within a few minutes that her son was autistic, he learned to count watching it go around the tank. He learned to feed it himself by watching his mother and him helping his mother feed him. And he learned to clean himself by helping his mom clean the goldfish. When his mom was taking him to the veterinarian, she told him, and the last thing he said was “What did I do wrong, Mom?”

At that moment, you could cut the air in the room with a knife, for me. It was like, this is the human-animal bond, we will do something. We’re not just treating an animal. We’re treating a person. And yes, it’s really clear in that story, but I would contend that’s the case with any relationship between an animal and a person. It’s understanding the back story. What does that animal mean to that person? The 18 year old girl with the 16 year old dog, an 81 year old person who lives alone with a pet and 15 years of getting unconditional love, and maybe their only source. I tell a story about Charles, with a dozen or more cats, who had lost his wife and daughter, both to cancer within a short period of time. And now this was his family. So the goldfish story to me is the best way in my mind to get across to people who aren’t necessarily even animal people, and I respect that for some people it’s not for them to have them in their life, I like to get across to them how important animals are to people in our life.

Zazie: Absolutely. In the book you have these sections called Ask Dr. Mark, and you talk about the costs of veterinary care and so on. One of the things we hear a lot about at the moment is problems of depression and suicide among vets, and how it’s actually really quite a difficult job. Why do you think being a vet can be so difficult, and what’s your advice for anyone wanting to become a vet?

Dr. Mark: Well first of all thanks for asking the question. We can’t deal with the issue unless we are aware that it exists. We have to confront the problem first, like any problem in life. Recently it is really disheartening to me to read these studies, because I know they’re true, there’s no question of it. At least in the United States, veterinary medicine is now the number 1 healthcare profession for suicide and depression, just like your question. And why is it disheartening to me? Because first of all, I consider my being a veterinarian to be the most amazing thing. It’s a sacred profession. It allows me to look back on my life, and yes there were crushing moments, but they are far outweighed by my ability to be impactful.

"We have to put it into perspective. For every one of those, there’s going to be dozens of people who are thankful that that veterinarian has walked into their life to help them with their animal."

So to go to the end of your question, for people who are thinking about being a veterinarian, it’s disheartening again to hear these studies that say 65% of veterinarians would talk a teenager out of being a veterinarian. I’m willing to say it’s a great profession. But let’s be realistic, let’s go in with our eyes open. One of the things – and some of your readers may or may not agree with this but I feel strongly – I found out over 40 years, that I get very cautious about hiring or working with a person who says “Why did I want to be a veterinarian? Because I like animals more than people.” That’s a red flag for me because veterinary medicine, and working in animal welfare, whether you’re a zookeeper or a registered veterinary technician, or front office staff, but to deliver animal care, we have to be people persons and animal persons. I got into this profession because I love people and animals. And why is that so important? Because for instance you take a clinical situation and people come into your office. If you’re going to a physician and you’re sick, you may not like him or her but you’re going to take their advice because you’re sick. If you bring your pet to a veterinarian, and if the veterinarian doesn’t gain your trust and confidence, you’re not going to take their advice and the animal’s going to suffer. We have to be caring and able to communicate well. We also have to be empathetic. Now how does this go back to suicide and depression? I think unfortunately some people have gotten into this profession to escape interacting with people and to those folks who are thinking that, I would say be cautious. This is a profession where you serve both populations.

Now I’ll go to the practical side. There’s a list of numerous things, but first, why depression and suicide? The average veterinary student graduates veterinary school today with a debt of $300k dollars.

Zazie: Wow.

Dr. Mark: If they want to go into private practice they eventually have to buy a practice, if they’re not interested in corporate medicine. And instead of being an intern if they were a dermatologist in human medicine, where you have an office and maybe a staff of half a dozen people, and then you refer to the local hospital for all your work-ups, a veterinarian has to own an X-ray machine, a laser machine, bone plates, surgery, ultrasounds, all of the equipment that makes up a hospital. And they have to have a talented staff, a caring staff, to be there to staff that, so there’s another major investment. So now, the veterinarian has invested a million, a million and a half dollars. And on a daily basis I think it should be understood, and I consider this as a positive challenge, on a daily basis if you have 20 appointments, one or more of them is going to go like this.  Someone’s going to come in, or a family’s going to come in, and say “Doc, please help us, this animal’s so important to us, he’s part of the family, he’s my mother’s favourite animal, he’s my dad’s support”, and then, “It’ll cost what?!”

And all of a sudden, the veterinarian is put in a position where if they want to do the best for the animal, they need to be empathetic. I’m not criticizing the person for asking that. But they have to be empathetic to their resources and what they’re capable of doing emotionally and financially. And they also still want to keep the lights on and pay off that debt. You can turn that into a challenge, navigate the waters so there’s a resolution that’s best for the animal, that people can also feel comfortable with, the family that has come in or the individual, and still is fair to the other professionals in your practice. That’s the challenge of veterinary medicine. So if you don’t look at it as a challenge but a problem, then it comes over to the dark side.

If you go down that list, the next thing is, on any typical day in a practice if you have 20 appointments, one or more of those will be a euthanasia. How many healthcare professionals deal with death on a daily basis? Now having said that, it’s a sacred profession with a wonderful tool. I was able to take countless animals, every one of them’s encrypted somewhere in my brain cells but I can’t remember each of them, but I was able to help many animals and relieve their suffering through euthanasia. So it is a wonderful thing. But when you deal with this on a daily basis, then you add the practical side, that bottle of euthanasia fluid is one room away and you had a crushing day. Some of the studies have shown recently that that decision for suicide is often made in a 30 minute time period. A crushing day, the bottle’s there, and here we go. Those are just some of them.

And another one which, I’m so glad we’re talking Zazie, and I mean that sincerely, is to do with the impact of social media. In researching my book, for 2 and a half years, I was surprised I could not find a veterinarian in practice that had not suffered from an example in social media, and this is just an example, a person comes in their practice with a dog that’s been hit by a car, he’s got a broken back, and the right decision is euthanasia. We discuss it, and then someone comes in the room to do the paperwork and they say it’ll cost $100 to euthanize him and it’ll cost $50 to cremate him. People go running out of the hospital, they go to social media, and they write, “I went to Dr Smith (made up name), Dr Smith’s practice because my dog had a broken back and needed to be euthanized, and all he cared about was killing him and charging me $150.” It goes through your heart like a spear. And it’s permanent, it’s out there. So I think that’s something that our profession and other professions have to deal with, and that’s the impact of social media.

We have to put it into perspective. For every one of those, there’s going to be dozens of people who are thankful that that veterinarian has walked into their life to help them with their animal. So social media, euthanasia, debt, rates and resources and what to do, all of those play a part in why there’s depression and suicide.

Now again, I look at it as a challenge. I look at it as okay, that’s the hard part of veterinary medicine, but we can work with this, which is why I always gave all the options to my clients when they came in my room. I didn’t second guess what they could afford based on what they looked like or how they were dressed or how they were acting. I also empathized with them. And this is a belief I hold. What we owe our animals in our care, now we’re talking about our pets, is we should never allow them to suffer unnecessarily. So that means that if an animal has some problems that the resources are not there to help with and they are suffering, then euthanasia is one of the options. What we really owe them is not to suffer. We don’t owe them a transplant. I’d love to do a kidney transplant if the resources are there and the situation is right, but we have to consider all that. So all these things play a part in the daily life of a veterinarian that people may not have considered.

Zazie: Thank you for such a thoughtful response to my question. It’s a difficult topic. So to counterbalance that, you’ve worked as a vet in lots of different settings. You’ve worked with companion animals and in a zoo and in humane societies. Across all of those settings, what did you enjoy most about being a vet?

Lions and Tigers and Hamsters: An Interview with Dr. Mark Goldstein. Photo shows Dr. Mark with a chimp
Dr. Mark Goldstein with a chimp

Dr. Mark: The ability to help and have meaning to my work. It had purpose. I can’t think of a particular incident, I mean I was a clinician as you said for almost 10 years. I loved medicine, I still do to this day. I still think like a doctor. If I look at something I subjectively evaluate it, I objectively evaluate it, and I come up with an assessment and then a plan. I still think like that even when I deal with things that aren’t animal or health-related. I loved being in medicine. I also loved affecting public policy and getting into those challenging discussions and debates of resource allocations for animals, and what’s their importance in our community. And being able to have an impact on that has been very rewarding.

Zazie: Near the end of the book you have a section on the future of animal welfare. What do you think are the biggest challenges of animal welfare for companion animals?

Dr. Mark: Well first, I want to be positive here because I believe it. I think the future for animal welfare is bright. In the 40 years I’ve seen the change for instance in our pets. When I grew up a dog was relegated to the back yard, not in my family but generally in our community. And then they moved to the garage, and then they moved to the living room, and now we fight for space with them on our bed. So if you look at the social changes that have occurred in the last 30 or 40 years, when you look at exotic animals or captive wildlife, or you look at free wildlife, when a beautiful lion in Africa is shot by a person from the United States, you might remember that story, there’s an outcry by the world of how wrong that is. That’s terrific, people care. People are asking challenging questions of our zoos and aquariums – are you up to speed, are you doing this right, are you doing this right by the animals? These are good questions. And for me, this foretells the future.

When it comes to shelters in the United States and Canada, the professionals running them are much more well trained, they go through certification exams. There’s something called the Certification of Animal Welfare Administrators. So we’ve professionalized the individuals running those shelters. When it comes to captive wildlife, we know first and foremost that the responsibility of the zoo or aquarium is to meet the basic needs, behavioural and physical, of the animals in their care. And they have to have a purpose that goes beyond entertainment. There has to be an educational component or a conservational component.

These are all things that I’ve seen in my 40 years and it bodes well. And I go back to this term I use in the book. Baba Dioum the Senegalese environmentalist made a lot of sense to me when he said "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." So what I’ve seen in the last 40 or 50 years, is we have been taught, there are discussions about animal welfare. There are discussions about the human-animal bond. There’s a respect that’s been given, and the more we teach about it, the more I think we will protect it, eventually love it, and that’s the goal. It bodes well for the future.

Having said that, I don’t want to be complacent. For instance one of the things that I have played a very tiny miniscule part in is that in the 1980s for instance, the numbers I know from the United States at least, is that we went from euthanizing 15 million or more healthy and adoptable dogs and cats in the United States. Today that number is down to 1.5 or 2 million animals. Now we could say let’s pop a bottle of champagne, and we should, that’s 13 million less, but let’s not go so far as to forget when we wake up tomorrow morning that there’s still 1.5 million that are being euthanized every year. We have to solve that problem. We’re still taking large mammals that are free and roaming the globe, and we’re watching their numbers plummet. So having said that the future is bright, doesn’t mean there’s not a tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done.

Zazie: I agree, we have a lot to do. So this is my last question. You said that you wrote the book for your grandchildren so that they would know what Dr. Mark did. Do your grandchildren have a favourite story from the book?

Dr. Mark: It’s the hamster, and Betty. And why? The hamster is just another story, and they can identify with it because it’s about a 12 year old boy that comes in and takes control of my clinic room by putting his hand on top of the box the hamster was in first, and saying “Dr. Goldstein, what do you know about hamsters?” And I don’t want to tell the whole story, I hope people will enjoy reading it, but that 12 year old boy taught me a lesson in life because he was willing to give up something that he was working for for a number of years, a bicycle. He was going to get a new bike for doing the paper round but when he found out that his hamster needed surgery, as one of the options, and I gave him all the options, he was a 12 year old boy saying to an adult, “Mom, I get can get the bicycle next year, I want to do this.” It really taught me the value of life.

And why Betty? It’s a long story there about Betty, Betty being an orangutan, but at the end of the story, because it deals with their Mom, my daughter Emily being born. And this bond when my wife was standing in front of an exhibit at night, it was Betty the orangutan who had just had a baby 5 months previously, and she comes down and presents her baby to my wife. And my wife took my daughter out of the sack in front of her and held her up. And you could watch the two mother’s eyes meet. And I remember distinctly thinking motherhood crosses generational lines. My grandkids love those stories.

Zazie: Brilliant. I loved all of the stories in the book. Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

Dr. Mark: I’d like to say to your readers, because if they’re reading these wonderful interviews that you do and the work that you put out, it means they care. And I hope I’ve in some small way impacted them through my book, and I always like to hear from readers. On Facebook I have a Lions and Tigers and Hamsters page. I’d love to hear from people when they’ve read the book. And I started making a list for my second book already. It’ll be different but I have a whole page of second stories.

Zazie: That’s great because I loved reading the book and I would love to read more. Thank you, Dr. Mark! It’s a real privilege to talk to you, and thank you for all you’ve done for animals throughout your career.

Lions and Tigers and Hamsters is available from my Amazon store and all good bookstores near you.

Mark Goldstein, DVM, has spent over 40 years caring, advocating, and fighting for the welfare of animals. The institutions he worked at are all recognized leaders in their respective fields and the variety of animals he worked with and his responsibilities were unique. He was a senior staff clinician in the medicine department at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston. After being hired to head the Boston Zoos, he led a turnaround for the failing inner city Franklin Park Zoo. "Dr. Mark" then moved west with his wife Kristine and their two daughters when he was appointed to lead the Los Angeles Zoo. He followed his heart to shine a light on the importance of the human-animal bond and took the helm at the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA where he oversaw the design, development, and completion of the "San Diego Campus for Animal Care." Many aspects of the campus, its programs and its unique partnership with the municipal animal care department have been copied numerous times both nationally and internationally. He has a BS in Animal Science and a DVM degree from Cornell University.

Crisis services are available at all times. The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be reached on 116 123. In Australia, Lifeline is on 13 11 14. For other countries, visit and search by country.

The Australian Veterinary Medical Association has a list of mental wellbeing resources for veterinarians and other medical personnel. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has a list of veterinarian health and wellness helplines and support services. In the UK, Vetlife provides free and confidential support to the vet community and in Australia, there is VetLife Australia.

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