Marina Ivanci is one of a kind. She is the only board-certified veterinary radiologist working full time at a North American zoo.

Share story

BROOKFIELD, Ill. — Today’s patient has 2-inch fangs, a glossy golden-brown coat and a triangular, petal-pink nose.

Dongwa the clouded leopard lies fully anesthetized in the CT scanner, his tongue lolling, as Brookfield Zoo radiologist Marina Ivancic scrolls through the 3-D rendering of his insides on her computer screen.

“Right lung, left lung, aorta, liver, gallbladder,” she narrates, as she makes the virtual journey through the cat’s thoracic cavity and down into his abdomen.

She calls up an image of the 40-pound cat’s muscular exterior, and then, with a few quick drags on her computer touch pad, she makes the muscle fall away, and you see the curves and angles of ghost-white bone.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Dongwa is the big attraction today, with vets and veterinary students clustered at his side, but it’s actually Ivancic, zoo officials say, who is one of a kind. She is the only board-certified veterinary radiologist working full time at a North American zoo, according to Michael Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine at the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo.

Hired this past June, Ivancic helps diagnose animals at Brookfield and serves as a consultant to zoos and aquariums worldwide, analyzing scans sent in from as far away as Australia and Hong Kong.

“I’m humbled every day that I get to do this for a living — which is nuts,” she said.

“People would do anything to touch one of these animals just once. There’s always some new thrill or some new species — some beautiful little animal that (may be) pregnant. The other day I looked at a little tamandua — a tiny anteater. They’re gorgeous animals, and I was looking at her belly with the ultrasound while she was eating these nasty little worms that she loves so much, and they’re wiggling around, and she’s chewing on them and paying no attention to the fact that I’m looking at her.”

Ivancic has quickly carved out a niche for herself — recent patients include a penguin, a snow leopard and a kangaroo. She’s also analyzing images sent in by other zoos, in a fee-for-service arrangement that Adkesson described as a win-win.

“It’s so easy to move these images (online) and her expertise can help everyone,” he said. “We’re hoping to not just improve the caliber of medicine for our animals, but to provide that for zoos around the world.”

Born in Croatia, Ivancic came to the United States with her family at age 5 when her father, a mathematician by training, got a job offer in Silicon Valley.

A passionate ballet dancer as a teenager, she practiced four hours a day and landed a ballet scholarship to the University of Hartford in Connecticut. But at 19, she suddenly became disenchanted: “I felt like it was a superficial form of existence.” She decided to focus, instead, on her love of animals and found her calling during a summer internship training dolphins in Hawaii.

“I met those animals, and that was it,” said Ivancic, 40, who lives in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. “I was done. I fell completely in love with them as a species, and that has never waned.”

She studied the standard domestic and barnyard animals at veterinary school but spent her summers working with dolphins at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, where she realized radiology is a big part of dolphin care. She did her residency in radiology at the University of Pennsylvania and started a career as a marine mammal radiologist.

“People were like, ‘What? I don’t need a dolphin radiologist. You’re crazy! I can just look at (the scans) myself,’” Ivancic recalled, laughing.

But MRI physics are complicated, she would tell the doubter; you do need a radiologist.

“Then I’ll send (the scan) to a human radiologist,” the doubter would say.

“OK, but they don’t know anything about a dolphin,” Ivancic would respond. “A dolphin has a blowhole; they have a modified larynx; they have all these adaptations.”

She built up a radiology-consulting business, analyzing scans sent to her via the internet and flying off to help diagnose and treat dolphins at zoos and private collections in Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, Turkey and Dubai.

Back at Brookfield, zoo veterinarians were beginning to realize they had a problem.

As imaging technology had advanced, it had become more difficult for veterinary radiologists trained in domestic animal care to interpret images from CT scans, MRIs, X-rays, ultrasounds and nuclear medicine. Adkesson wanted someone who could fill that gap, a staff radiologist with a focus on zoo animals who could help get the diagnosis right the first time, potentially allowing zoo veterinarians to start treatment earlier and get better results.

Ivancic was already very well-known in the marine-mammal field, Adkesson said, and the Brookfield Zoo has dolphins, seals and sea lions, so that was a natural fit. She had the technical skills the zoo was looking for: “She’s an absolutely phenomenal radiologist — one of the best radiologists I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” said Adkesson.

And she had the people skills that medical professionals with highly technical specialties sometimes lack.

“We’re really in very uncharted waters with this, and we knew she had the right personality to make a success out of it,” Adkesson said.

For today’s patient, the news is good. A few months ago, Dongwa, a senior cat at age 14, had a small cancerous growth removed from his mouth. But after examining 4,875 images from the CT scan of the cat’s body, as well as computer reconstructions that capture important details, Ivancic finds no sign that the cancer has spread.

Sitting in an office decorated with black and white photos from her dolphin-training days, Ivancic reports good news on the consulting side as well. She’s now getting a few dozen requests to analyze scans from other zoos every month, up from zero when she started a year ago.

“I’m getting everything,” she says of her long-distance patients. “I’ll get an African Cape porcupine, I’ll get a Komodo dragon CT and I’ll get an MRI of a gorilla — you know, all of it. Your brain has to constantly be working. There’s steam coming out of my ears!”

Not that she’s complaining.

“I like a challenge,” Ivancic said with a smile. “I’m not a risk-averse person.”