OKC Zoo leader earns honor for being champion of animal welfare

OKC Zoo leader earns honor for being champion of animal welfare


On a Monday morning at the Oklahoma City Zoo’s Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, Jennifer D’Agostino, senior director of veterinary services, is inspecting a grumpy female peafowl and drawing a blood sample. 

In her role, D’Agostino conducts regular health checks on everything from toads to birds to bears and to even the largest of the zoo’s elephants. She has taken blood from the tail of the zoo’s cobra, taught the elephants to lift up their massive stump-like feet for inspection and collected stool samples from even the most irritated of critters big and small. 

D’Agostino has managed animal health for the zoo for more than 19 years. Her passion for animal welfare, however, isn’t limited to the wooded perimeter of the Oklahoma City Zoo. In addition to conservation work to promote native Oklahoma habitats and survival efforts for the endangered Texas horned lizard, she is also a passionate advocate in places like Kenya, where she works in land management that helps wildlife thrive, and with the Painted Dog Research Trust in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. 

Her photography shares the beauty of the natural world and all its creatures, and she is instrumental in helping other organizations with their conservation and animal welfare efforts. 

“At the zoo, I’m the champion for our Conservation Action Now research grant program, where we request applications for small conservation-based grants,” she says. 

“I coordinate that program by collecting these applications and finding staff members to get involved to review those applications. We award small grants to these researchers who are doing this amazing conservation work.” 

For her passionate dedication to animal welfare and conservation, D’Agostino was named one of two recipients of the 2022 Kirkpatrick Honor for Animal Wellbeing. Drew Edmondson, longtime Oklahoma attorney general, also received the award. The honor is a part of Kirkpatrick Foundation’s mission to make Oklahoma a safe and humane state for all animals through its Safe & Humane initiative. 

‘Purpose in life’ to help animals

D’Agostino earned her doctorate from Michigan State University and joined the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2003 for her residency in zoological medicine and post-graduate training. After her residency, she worked in an associate veterinarian position at the zoo. 

A native of Davison, Michigan, D’Agostino was born with a love of wildlife. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a veterinarian, especially a zoo veterinarian.  

“I decided I wanted to be a zoo vet when I was about 7 years old,” D’Agostino says. “I’ve always loved animals.” 

“I grew up with my grandma in Flint, Michigan, and as part of the Flint City School District — she ran a working farm, so it had cows, horses, pigs, sheep and agriculture. I spent a lot of my childhood out at that farm, and I would just follow the vet around. I knew that my goal in life, and my purpose in life was to help animals.” 

Noting her interest in how veterinarians cared for the animals — especially the giant draft horses — on the farm, D’Agostino’s mother bought a subscription to the “Zoobooks” magazine, which only fed her passion for animal care and veterinary medicine. 

After joining the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2003 for her residency, the Michigan native said the organization and the state felt like home. She bonded with her co-workers and other people of the state, but the zoo’s programs were a big motivating factor in her continued mission of caring for animals. 

D’Agostino was instrumental in the capital campaign to create the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital facility, which received a kickoff gift of $1 million from the Kirkpatrick Foundation and Kirkpatrick Family Fund. Opened in 2015, the $9.2 million hospital is one of only a handful of accredited zoos across the country that provides the public the opportunity to observe procedures ranging from preventative health exams to surgeries. Through that new hospital, D’Agostino continues to educate the public, and her own team, on the importance of animal welfare. 

“If you think about what a veterinarian does here at the zoo and the breadth of expertise that’s really unparalleled, Jennifer has to deal with everything from a frog to a giraffe and do it well,” says Dwight Lawson, executive director and CEO of the Oklahoma City Zoo. “Jennifer is board certified in zoo and exotic medicine, which is a bit of a rarity, but she has also built a great team around her to help do that. She is passionate about teaching and passing on that knowledge.” 

Continuing conservation

D’Agostino has a passion for conservation and animal advocacy. She is a supporter and part of the Painted Dog Research Trust in Africa, the zoo’s Horned Lizard program and the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya. Her expertise in animal welfare is only complemented by her photography skills, which she shares with organizations. 

D’Agostino has visited Africa numerous times and worked closely with the Painted Dog Research Trust, one of the organizations she plans to support with the no-strings-attached monetary award Kirkpatrick Honor for Animal Wellbeing. 

“Jen applied and was accepted by the zoo to come here and represent Oklahoma City. When she was here, we had a very difficult situation going on with a pack where the alpha female had just given birth to five pups,” says Dr. Greg Rassmussen, executive director of the Painted Dog Research Trust in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. 

Because so many of the pack had been killed by motorized vehicles, the mother and the pups were starving. The trust was able to get permission from the national parks service to feed the struggling pack carcasses of wild animals to help save the population. 

“We had to get carcasses because obviously you can’t start giving them kibble. They’re wild animals,” said Rasmussen. “These carcasses weighed about sixty or seventy pounds, and the den was a good mile or more away. Jen was the first to help carry a carcass. She was there and just belonged from the day she arrived at the project. Some people are like that—the second they arrive, it’s like they’ve been here all their life.” 

That involvement has led to a deep partnership between D’Agostino, the Oklahoma City Zoo and the Painted Dog Research Trust. 

“The way she runs her veterinary department is exemplary. It really is so special to see the way her team operates,” says Rasmussen.  

D’Agostino is also passionate about sharing conservation and wildlife through nature photography, and she is active in the zoo’s global and local conservation efforts. She has designed her own home and land to be as natural as possible, cultivating native plants and keeping the wild places wild on her property. 

“My hobby is photography, and of course, wildlife and nature is my favorite thing to photograph. For people to be able to take those amazing pictures of wildlife, there has to be appropriate habitat. By creating that, even in your own backyard, you can interact with local wildlife and know that you’re doing good things for them and providing what they need to continue on,” D’Agostino says.  

As for her $25,000 award, she plans to invest in new camera equipment and then donate the remaining to two conservation organizations. 

“I’m going to give some of the money to the Gorilla Doctors, which is a phenomenal organization in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. They go out into the forest every single day and take care of mountain gorillas, and those animals are alive today and not extinct because of the efforts of those rangers and those veterinarians,” she says. 

“The rest I will give to the Painted Dog Research Trust, because they are doing such fantastic work, and I want to be able to help them advance what they’re doing to help painted dogs.” 

Jennifer D’Agostino (center left) was named one of two recipients of the 2022 Kirkpatrick Honor for Animal Wellbeing, which honors achievement and leadership in Oklahoma animal welfare.

The Kirkpatrick Foundation continues to support D’Agostino’s work at the Oklahoma City Zoo, continuing a long tradition with the organization. John Kirkpatrick was a founding member of the Oklahoma Zoological Society, which is its nonprofit support group. 

“Kirkpatrick Foundation has been just a tremendous supporter of the work that we’ve done here, particularly with the veterinary program and its focus on animal care,” says Lawson. “The foundation built a lot of the infrastructure that has supported our veterinary program and our folks like Jennifer, to really give them the resources needed to take such great care of the animals here.”