Wednesday mornings at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dr. Marianne Kirkendall is onsite for her veterinary rounds. On the rotation for the day is checking on a painted turtle who the aquarists are rehabilitating after it sustained a carapace fracture when it was hit by a car. Kirkendall does a visual exam and makes sure the turtle’s brace—a paperclip epoxied on its shell to keep the boney tissue from shifting while it heals—before she continues to other animals for the day. Wednesdays are her day off from her other clinical duties as one of the veterinarians at Colonial Terrace Animal Hospital, one of the local clinics in town where many River Museum guests most likely take their pets for care.

Kirkendall, a Dubuque native, knew what she wanted to do from a young age. Growing up with exotic pets as a child and raised in a family interested and invested in learning and caring for animals, everything on the path to pursue veterinary medicine seemed to fall into place. In high school, she started working at Colonial Terrace cleaning kennels and getting a feel for what the profession involved, and by the time she made her college decision, going to vet school was the easy choice. It was in her final year of schooling at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine that she gained more experience with zoo animals and set the groundwork to continue practicing when she came home to Dubuque.

“The fourth year of vet school is spent in clinicals—I did an externship at the zoo in Omaha and got involved for the first time with zoo animals,” she said. “It was an awesome experience and to this day, I feel incredibly lucky my hometown has a facility like this where I get to do the small animal work I enjoy as well as the exotic work.”

Kirkendall does see her share of exotic pets at Colonial Terrace, and while the premise of providing care is central to the appointments, she also takes the opportunity to educate pet owners on how to enhance their pets’ lives based on the knowledge she’s gained from her experiences at the River Museum.

“One of the cool things about working with exotics is that it’s a team effort to make it work,” she said. “You can work towards special training or board certifications in different areas, but what has helped a lot is building a network with vets who are specialists or have specific interests. I also rely on the awesome team of people at River Museum who have special interest and knowledge areas. We are always learning from each other; I think that’s what helps us provide the best care and helps me bring that to my clients at the clinic.”

Once a week, Kirkendall stops down to the River Museum to do routine checks on the animals, working on small groups per visit with exams ranging from weight checks, quarantine process, wellness exams and nail trimming. For more involved exams, blood work, x-rays or anything that requires specialized veterinary equipment, animals are transported to Colonial Terrace and the clinic team has the opportunity to learn about species they do not typically get the chance to work with. Kirkendall knows firsthand how her experience working with exotics has shaped her veterinary career and she’s happy to be able to share that same knowledge and provide that opportunity to her staff.

“I love the teaching aspect. It helps keep me grounded but also sharpens my own skills,” she said. “After 15 years of practice, it can get routine, and I sometimes forget what I do is unlike other’s day to day—I mean, how many people in Dubuque get to work with otters on a daily basis? That’s really cool!”


As with any type of medical care, there is a fair number of challenges, and adding in some of the complexities with exotics means using a different approach for treatment. One of the biggest challenges is geriatric care as animals at the River Museum are able to live well beyond their natural life expectancy due to receiving specialized care. As animals age, their needs change, but the way Kirkendall and her team address them may be different than working with domestic pets who experience the same needs. Kirkendall used the example of arthritis, a common health change as animals get older. A cat with arthritis has a set regimen for care, and it is easier for the owner to bring into the clinic for routine checks or administer pain medication at home. At the River Museum, if one of the ducks in the Backwater Marsh exhibit start showing signs of discomfort and arthritis, understanding limitations for handling the animals and the potential stress it causes on them for transport to and from the clinic requires more thought and planning. It’s a good problem to solve as a part of her work with the River Museum and the aquarists at the facility, and Kirkendall is then able to take information back to Colonial Terrace to help enhance care for her clients.

“Keeping all the information straight can be challenging because of their differences, but I always remind myself and other vets to go back to the basics,” she said. “An exam is very similar; go nose to tail and start with a visual exam. The species are more similar than some may think but respecting and knowing the differences is where we can excel in the care of the animals.”

Other challenges lie with the sheer number of species at the River Museum and many that live together. Environments such as the Main Channel and Gulf of Mexico Aquariums sometimes require aquarists to remove an individual fish for additional care or treating the whole tank with minerals in the water, for example. A recent success story involved the paddlefish exhibit where Kirkendall made the call to remove one paddlefish that was losing weight and not eating as much as the others in the aquarium. With a little specialized care such as tube feeding, Kirkendall saw great improvements and the paddlefish was returned to the exhibit and continues to do well.

The opportunity to work with exotic species and have a greater impact on veterinary care in her hometown are two of Kirkendall’s greatest joys with her position and being able to do so at the River Museum in an educating role roots itself deep in another of her interests: conservation.

“I love the museum’s mission and the work that goes into being able to provide a new perspective to visitors,” she said. “For example, how many times does someone go fishing, catch a bass, and think nothing more of it? At the River Museum, they can see the bass in a new way and learn more about the species that wouldn’t have been a part of their thought process before! It drives home the need for conservation—humans are visual creatures who need to see it to appreciate it more. It takes a team to take care of the animals here, but it takes the whole community to care for the animals around us.”

Kirkendall’s passion for caring for animals is evident in her approach with her clients, but the passion transcends after hours as well with her own animals. While she certainly stays busy with her rounds at the River Museum and Colonial Terrace, she recently started doing competitive dog sports with her papillon, Pippin, and has found the connection between them both gives her a new perspective to how she provides care at both facilities.

“One of the things I appreciate about [competitive dog sports] is how it helps me become a better vet,” she said. “It’s given me the tools to communicate on a different level with my own pet and that makes me better at working with animals. People may think my hobby outside of work is to do something animal related, but it’s been a great experience and I’m really enjoying it!”