When Ryan Colburn ’06 thinks about moments of beauty in his life, he thinks about being in a room surrounded by turtles. It was a moment that happened before his current job as the veterinarian at John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was at an internship in Florida as part of his doctorate in veterinary medicine at Michigan State University and was assigned to take care of these patients, ranging from sea turtles to softshell turtles to tortoises.

“There were seven different species all around me, all extremely different,” Colburn recalled. “There was so much beauty in the sea turtle markings and in the diversity of the different species. I thought, ‘This is a window and the little glimpse I’m getting into creation.’”

Caring for creation

Today, Colburn gets those little glimpses often, as he cares for the animals at the John Ball Zoo. The zoo is home to many species, including penguins, porcupines, lions, sharks, armadillos, and camels—and Colburn sees them all.

“In addition to enjoying that diversity and variety of the animals, I add in the science and physiology,” he said. “When you start to look at how the animals function, you can see many similarities and differences. You realize how intricate creation is—we are scratching the surface of what there is to know.”

Colburn’s job involves a lot of creative problem solving. He routinely dives into online research and textbooks, searching for answers to symptoms he’s seeing in one of the zoo’s animals. “These animals are my patients, and I’ve taken an oath to care for them,” he said.

“There is always something new crossing my path every day. On one hand, that’s the thing that makes the job very fun,” Colburn said with a laugh, “but it also is very challenging.” He has to think through complications like how to get wild animals to take their medicine, how to do surgery on fish, and how to get a baby lynx to keep her splint on.


Inspiring lasting change

One thing the zoo’s veterinarian wants to be sure you know: Wild animals belong in wild places.

“For these animals to stick around, we need to provide a planet where they can do that,” Colburn said. “There are less and less places that are truly wild.”

He hopes zoo visitors take a few moments to marvel at God’s creation and are inspired to make some changes in their lives. “We can make real positive changes that translate into positive results in the world for animals in the wild.”

Colburn said that learning how products impact the world around us can lead to very simple but meaningful changes. For example, reducing the use of disposable, plastic straws and other single-use plastics can have major implications to the health of oceans. He also suggests supporting zoos whose mission centers around conservation.

Working a dream job

Doing this work has been a lifelong dream of Colburn’s. “I knew very early on that I wanted to be a veterinarian,” said Colburn, who grew up in Grand Rapids.

When considering colleges, he had his goal of vet school in mind. “I knew I needed a program that would give me a good educational foundation. I needed a place that would teach me how to study and have a well-respected program. Calvin has always had all of that,” he said.

A biology major, Colburn participated in summer research with the biology and chemistry department. “I loved my time as a student in the biology department. I was set up very well by my time at Calvin,” he said.