As zoos and animal care have evolved, the zoo’s senior veterinary technician has set the standard for hands-on healing.

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AS HARMONY FRAZIER gets into position, zookeeper Alyssa Borek starts gently scratching the Komodo dragon’s neck. Her fingers along its scales make a raspy sound, like running your nails down a pinecone. The reptile closes its eyes and sighs, softly.

The dragon’s name is Selat. He’s 7 feet long, lives at Woodland Park Zoo and is nearly 20 years old. That’s old, for a dragon, and Selat’s got some of the aches and pains that come with age. Frazier, a senior veterinary technician who has worked at the zoo for more than 40 years, says Selat has arthritis in his joints, and spondylosis in his lower back.

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That’s what they’re hoping to alleviate today. Frazier, in green scrubs, is back by Selat’s hips, slowly running what looks like a checkout scanner down his back. Red light escapes from underneath it. It’s not a scanner, though. It’s a laser therapy device, designed to reduce pain and inflammation. It feels like nothing when it touches you, but on Selat, at least, it seems to work.

“We can tell how he’s feeling by how high he stands up,” explains Frazier, attentive and patient, her hair tied up behind her. She’s massaging Selat’s arms and legs with her free hand as she goes. If he’s feeling well, he’s a high-stepping lizard, Frazier says. If not, he’ll kind of slump.

Despite Komodo dragons’ fearsome reputation, Selat is very calm, tranquil even, and waits patiently as Frazier works. Selat’s been getting his weekly massages for about a year now. He’s used to this.

“They learn what we’re trying to do and we learn what they’ll tolerate, and slowly we work it out together,” says Frazier. They all look forward to it, says one of the keepers.

Harmony Frazier, a senior veterinary technician, is retiring after more than four decades at Woodland Park Zoo. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Harmony Frazier, a senior veterinary technician, is retiring after more than four decades at Woodland Park Zoo. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“It’s one of my favorite … ” starts Frazier. Then Selat lifts his head. There was a noise outside. Selat picks himself up and starts to move away. Frazier stands. “Are you done, buddy?”

The animals stay only as long as they want to. The keepers duck back through the doorway and exit to give Selat his space back.

“I admit; he’s one of my favorites,” says Frazier, as she emerges from his enclosure. “I mean, how unique is that? And you can tell he likes it.”

 

THE EQUIPMENT is packed up, and the group heads down the hall. Selat is only one of the animals Frazier will see today.

Every session she does, Frazier and the keepers chat about what they’re seeing and brainstorm new exercises. Would a squeeze ball be good for their boa constrictor? Do you think the opossum’s T-bar would work for the red panda? Frazier is expressive — when she talks about how an elderly penguin likes to be stretched, she stands up on her toes. When she explains how wiggly vines can help a hornbill improve its balance, she shimmies like she’s on a surfboard.

Jacob gets close to zookeeper Diane Abbey for a treat from her hand while Harmony Frazier gives him a shoulder massage at Woodland Park Zoo. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Jacob gets close to zookeeper Diane Abbey for a treat from her hand while Harmony Frazier gives him a shoulder massage at Woodland Park Zoo. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Physical rehabilitation has been catching on at zoos the past few years, and Frazier has been spearheading it here in Seattle. In 2012, she went to Tennessee to become the first licensed veterinary technician at a zoo certified in animal rehabilitation. She brought that knowledge home, working with local experts and the zoo’s veterinary staff to start the rehabilitation medicine program.

The wide range of animals she’ll treat today includes chuckwallas and red pandas, though the first animals to get massages were not quite so exotic.

“We started out working with the goats in the family farm,” says Frazier. “Which is kind of cool because that’s where I started my career.”

Her first job at Woodland Park Zoo was running the petting zoo, though Frazier started her zoo career in Oregon. In 1976, she was working as a vet tech at a veterinary clinic in Beaverton, Oregon, just outside Portland. Frazier says she always loved animals — it was in her 20s that she was inspired to go into veterinary medicine.

“I came across a young dog giving birth to puppies at a party,” says Frazier. “I spent the whole night with her, helping her give birth to these puppies. That was when I went, ‘I have to do something with animals.’ ”

When she wasn’t working in the Beaverton clinic, Frazier spent Saturdays volunteering in the nursery at the Oregon Zoo. The huge variety of critters enchanted her — harbor seals, pygmy goats, even a baby hippo named Kubwa Sana.

“I got to help with this baby hippo that liked to lay in your lap after a bath. He was 100 pounds; he loved a little blanket,” she says.

The list of infants Frazier has helped raise is astounding — lions, tigers, bears, wolves, snow leopards and more. She literally has written the handbooks for some species.

The last infant was the gorilla Yola, now a playful 3-year old, whom Frazier affectionately calls her granddaughter because she helped raise Yola’s mom, Nadiri, as well.

This year marks Frazier’s 40th anniversary at Woodland Park, where she was reunited with Kubwa Sana, the hippo she knew as a baby in Oregon.

“He eventually, just serendipitously, ended up at this zoo after I’d been working here, so he was here his whole life,” she says. “And I was here when he passed away.”

 

THE WAY THE ZOO works has changed during Frazier’s tenure. Though she might not have known it when she signed on, a big shift was coming to Woodland Park in the late 1970s — one that would end up affecting zoos around the world.

When Woodland Park Zoo was founded in 1899, zoos were very different places. Exhibits were cold and hard, designed around human convenience more than anything else.

Zoo keeper Jamie Delk keeps red panda Yukiko occupied with apple snacks as veterinary technician Barbra Brush massages him. The yellow “peanut” helps stretch muscles as the animal moves on it. Brush is among the vet techs who will take over Harmony Frazier’s laser and massage treatments after she retires. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Zoo keeper Jamie Delk keeps red panda Yukiko occupied with apple snacks as veterinary technician Barbra Brush massages him. The yellow “peanut” helps stretch muscles as the animal moves on it. Brush is among the vet techs who will take over Harmony Frazier’s laser and massage treatments after she retires. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

In the mid-1970s, however, an architect named David Hancocks came to the zoo. He had a vision of enclosures designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitats — not stages, but forests and plains and mountains. They started with the gorillas, consulting with experts like Dian Fossey to help design the new enclosure. In July 1979, they were ready to move the gorillas.

Frazier remembers the day. All the veterinarians were in what was, essentially, a gorilla assembly line, checking teeth, eyes and hearts before the gorillas were taken to their new homes.

There were skeptics, of course, but Frazier says she immediately saw a difference. The animals were more active, more interested in their environment and healthier. There was more breeding. Soon after, the zoo would build the African savanna exhibit. Other zoos soon followed suit.

Animal and infant care evolved over time, too, as the zoo placed greater focus on keeping babies at moms’ sides as much as possible. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Frazier used to take the infant Nadiri the gorilla (who’d had a difficult birth) home with her for overnight care, but with Nadiri’s daughter Yola, things were different.

“We never took her out of the unit, at all. From the time she was born, she smelled gorillas, she heard gorillas, she knew their routines,” says Frazier.

Instead, the zoo built a special unit in the gorillas’ home with a little doggy door just big enough for a baby gorilla, but too small for an adult. This meant the keepers could safely take Yola aside to do care or checkups without ever taking her away from her mom.

“It’s a whole different way of doing it now, and it’s so much better,” Frazier says. “It’s really obvious that it’s the right way.”

At Woodland Park Zoo, Amarillo the Armadillo stays fit by working out on a treadmill motivated by mealworms. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Frazier still helped with overnight care, though it became her going into the gorillas’ world, instead of vice-versa.

“I got to help by being there at night. I slept with her in the unit, which is one of my favorite things in the world to do,” says Frazier. “You get to be in the middle of their world, getting to hear them move around at night, just listening to their sounds and smelling them.”

Visitors have changed over the years, too, she says.

“I think they’re a lot more discriminating. They demand a lot more. They have higher expectations of what they want to see,” says Frazier. They want to see the animals not just surviving, but thriving — “which is a good thing.”

Many of the innovative things Frazier has seen over the years have become standard practice — even required by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums — from the natural enclosures, to the animal care, to conservation work she led in the 1980s and ’90s.

Following acupuncture, massage and an injection, Mr. Sea, front, returns to the penguin habitat at Woodland Park Zoo with a steadier gait. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Following acupuncture, massage and an injection, Mr. Sea, front, returns to the penguin habitat at Woodland Park Zoo with a steadier gait. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

BACK AT THE ZOO, a needle sticks out of the top of Mr. Sea’s head like a cowlick. Mr. Sea is a 29-year-old Humboldt penguin. Today’s his acupuncture session, but Frazier is not the one working on Mr. Sea. Instead she stays back, her latex-gloved hands clasped, like an attending doctor. Today, it’s Dr. Cindy Knapp from SOUND Veterinary Rehabilitation Center in charge.

SOUND typically focuses on familiar animals like dogs and cats, but Knapp says she jumped at the chance to help out at the zoo.

“They approached me and said, ‘Hey, would you be willing to do acupuncture on the penguins?’ and I was, like, ‘Totally! I’ll try anything!’ ” Knapp says.

It’s hands-on care for Mr. Sea, a 29-year-old penguin at Woodland Park Zoo. Harmony Frazier checks him out following an acupuncture session with Dr. Cindy Knapp, right, from SOUND Veterinary Rehabilitation Center. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
It’s hands-on care for Mr. Sea, a 29-year-old penguin at Woodland Park Zoo. Harmony Frazier checks him out following an acupuncture session with Dr. Cindy Knapp, right, from SOUND Veterinary Rehabilitation Center. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Frazier’s one of many people who work on rehab now. She’s built a team of keepers, veterinary staff and outside experts. One of the other vet techs, Barbra Brush, is pursuing the same rehabilitation certification Frazier has, as the idea has spread beyond geriatric or recovering animals. There’s now a proactive fitness program for ambassador animals, who are featured in the zoo’s educational programs.

“When we have success at one area of the zoo, that tends to be kind of contagious,” says Darin Collins, director of Animal Health Programs.

The acupuncture is supposed to help Mr. Sea with stiffness and energy, and by the end, it seems successful. His keeper, Celine Pardo, sets Mr. Sea on the floor. He scratches his tail with his beak and waddles over to Frazier.

“Hey, you,” says Frazier. Mr. Sea seems to be looking for a treat, she says. Pardo gets him a couple of fish, and they open the door for Mr. Sea to leave. “There he goes!” says Frazier. “He’s having a zoomy day.”

Mr. Sea waddles back into the enclosure, where he slips sideways into the water. He dips his head under and splashes his tail back and forth.

 

ZOOS IN OTHER parts of the country call Woodland Park to learn what they’re doing with rehab.

“The world is shrinking,” says Collins. It’s more common than ever for zookeepers and techs to share their progress with each other. They can watch clips and share tips with other keepers from all around the country, or the world. “The globalization of zookeeping and animal health in zoos is really evident today.”

Frazier says she’s seen how motivated and imaginative young keepers are these days.

“I went to this conference, and these young, smart keepers, they’re doing all this research and they’re sharing with each other,” she says. “It’s so incredible to see the next group of professional zookeepers. That’s why I feel comfortable about retiring.”

Exercise “peanut” in hand, Harmony Frazier leaves the red panda facility. She will be leaving Woodland Park Zoo soon after working there for more than 40 years. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Exercise “peanut” in hand, Harmony Frazier leaves the red panda facility. She will be leaving Woodland Park Zoo soon after working there for more than 40 years. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

At the beginning of 2018, Frazier moved into part-time retirement, handing off many of her duties to other staff, returning just a few days a week to continue working on the rehab project. Come January 2019, she’s planning to retire full-time.

“It’s devastating to know that Harmony is moving on,” says Collins. “But everybody moves on at some point. We’re prepared. She’s prepared all of us.”

The success of the zoo is built on a team, Collins says. After Frazier retires, others will move in as the next generation of animal caretakers.

Will Frazier continue to visit the zoo?

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “I’m looking forward to lots of gorilla grandbabies.” A new big male, Kwame, arrived at the zoo a few months ago, and the staff has high hopes.

As for Frazier, she says leaving Woodland Park Zoo isn’t the end of her work with animals. She’s planning to continue to do in-home massage and rehabilitation for ailing pets with her husband.

“I want to always be working with animals and finding ways to help,” she says.