A champion of chimps and dreams

September 20, 2018
Sarah Mouton Dowdy
Sarah Mouton Dowdy

Sarah Mouton Dowdy, a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com, is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dr. Raven Jackson-Jewetts landed the job of her dreams when she became the attending veterinarian at a chimpanzee sanctuary. Now she wants to inspire and invite others to follow in her footstepsespecially fellow minorities.

Dr. Raven Jackson-Jewett serves as the attending veterinarian at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Lousiana, where she cares for more than 250 chimpanzees. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Ingram Photography)Think of the moment you decided to become a veterinarian. Where were you? How old were you? How many puppies or kittens had you snuggled that day?

For many, the veterinarian dream is sown in young soil. It typically starts with a love of animals, followed by the incredible discovery that it's someone's job to take care them.

The story of Raven Jackson-Jewett, DVM, is no different (at least in this respect). Despite being born to parents who were officially not animal lovers and who held hopes of their daughter someday treating two-legged patients, Dr. Jackson-Jewett says she's been drawn to animals and the idea of caring for them since she was a toddler. “My parents wondered where I came from,” she laughs.

It wasn't until many years later, when Dr. Jackson-Jewett began interviewing at veterinary schools, that she was made aware of how her story diverges from the norm: She is black and was pursuing a profession that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is more than 93 percent white.

“It was very important for me to visit every university I was considering in person,” recalls Dr. Jackson-Jewett. “On the walls, they have pictures of every class, and I would only see one or two faces that looked like mine.”

Dr. Jackson-Jewett eventually chose to attend the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, which proudly touts being recognized as the most diverse school of veterinary medicine in the nation.

“I was fortunate to see all types of nationalities within my class,” she says.

When asked to comment on the reason why diversity remains so low in the veterinary profession, Dr. Jackson-Jewett chalks it up to a lack of exposure.

“Children are heavily influenced by their environments,” she says, “which is why it's really important for me to go to Title 1 schools and disadvantaged schools to let students know that they too can become anything that they want-even a veterinarian. I'm shocked at the number of times I've talked to children and they say, ‘I can be a veterinarian? There are black veterinarians?' If they don't have an opportunity to see it, they often don't know it's a possibility for them.”

Though Jackson-Jewett's desire to become a veterinarian managed to flourish in the absence of role models who looked like her, exposure played a crucial role in what she would eventually choose to specialize in.

“As a young girl, I'd only had exposure to small animals,” she says. “I knew I loved animals, but to me that meant dogs and cats. It wasn't until I was a little older and was exposed to zoos and other facilities that I realized that there were so many other species I could potentially target.”

With a wider view of her possibilities, Dr. Jackson-Jewett became captivated by a particular species during her undergraduate studies.

“While doing some behavioral observations in a wildlife and ecology course, one of the species I worked with was the chimpanzee,” she says. “After seeing their social dynamics and how similar they are to us and how their family structures mirrored what I saw in my own family, I thought, ‘Wow. It would be really cool if I could specialize in chimpanzee medicine.'”

For Dr. Jackson-Jewett, this was no fleeting thought. While working at a research facility during her postdoctoral internship in nonhuman primate behavior and medicine, she told her boss at the time that her ideal job would be to work solely with chimpanzees one day. Dr. Jackson-Jewett's superior later shared this revelation with Linda Brent, PhD-a primate behaviorist and the founder and then-president of Chimp Haven, a nonprofit chimpanzee sanctuary located in Keithville, Louisiana-when she met her at a conference. 

Brent told Dr. Jackson-Jewett's then-boss that Chimp Haven would soon be in need of an attending veterinarian and that she should encourage her intern to consider the position. When Brent didn't hear from the aspiring chimpanzee specialist, she took matters into her own hands and emailed Dr. Jackson-Jewett, urging her to apply.

“If I'm honest, I reached out to all of my mentors and they told me not to do it,” she laughs. “That's just because it was a pretty hefty job for a new graduate who'd been out a little less than a year. They thought that starting a program and running a facility would be too much responsibility. But, I love a challenge, and my dream was sitting in front of me. My dream was attainable.”

Dr. Jackson-Jewett checks on Keeli, a Chimp Haven resident. (Photo courtesy of Chimp Haven)Living the dream

Chimp Haven was founded in 1995 with a mission to provide a sanctuary for chimpanzees formerly used in biomedical research, in the entertainment industry and as family pets. In 2000, the nonprofit was provided with 200 acres to make its mission a reality, and the first chimpanzee residents arrived five years later. Now, Chimp Haven is home to more than 250 chimps.

“As the attending veterinarian, I'm responsible for veterinary care and oversight of the animal care program,” says Dr. Jackson-Jewett. While getting my training and experience, I was in the laboratory setting and saw what some of these animals had to endure. And now I'm fortunate enough to get to see them on this side of the fence, thriving in the sanctuary.”

When Dr. Jackson-Jewett first came to Chimp Haven in August 2010, she found that her schooling and training weren't over.

“A little over half of our colony has been exposed to HIV, hepatitis or other infectious diseases that we were not trained on in veterinary school,” she says. “That meant I had to pop open some books, do some training and take some continuing education courses to figure out how to treat these cases. It makes me think that maybe my mom was right-I think a medical doctor would thrive here because they're so similar to humans.”

Dr. Jackson-Jewett refers to the chimps as her “extended family” and says she's been able to build relationships with each and every one.

“I'm here all the time, so they see me outside of just being a vet,” she says, which comes in handy on those days when the chimps need veterinary care, such as anesthesia.

“I'll come in, show them the syringe, ask them to hold alert for an injection and most of them will do that willingly because we have a relationship,” says Dr. Jackson-Jewett.

Sharing the dream

Despite landing her dream job, Dr. Jackson-Jewett remains focused on the future and bringing others into it.

Chimp Haven is working on a $20 million expansion in order to accommodate the more than 120 chimpanzees that will eventually join the sanctuary (the retirement process for a research lab animal is lengthy and complicated, so they don't always know exactly when the new residents will arrive).

“Chimpanzees have a long lifespan-we're talking 60-plus years-so there's going to be a need for someone to take my job someday,” she says.

Again, Dr. Jackson-Jewett goes back to the importance of exposure.

“At Chimp Haven, I've spearheaded the veterinary department's internship/externship program. When I started here, that was one of the things that I was charged with by the National Institutes of Health-to do what I could to increase diversity within the field of laboratory animal medicine-including encouraging more men to enter the field as well. Prior to the 1980s, this was a male-dominated field. Now, it's flipped the other direction. So, we'd like to see more men and more diversity.”

To this end, Dr. Jackson-Jewett regularly travels to her alma mater and various other universities to tell veterinary students about the work she's able to do at Chimp Haven, and students are also able to visit the sanctuary for a more in-depth exposure to laboratory animal medicine.

“I used to say I wanted to be the ‘black Jane Goodall,'” she laughs. “I wouldn't say that's exactly what I am now, but I'm living out my version of the dream and others can too.”