OAKLAND -- Once, during surgery on a massive tiger in the Oakland Zoo's cramped hospital, veterinarians were squeezed so tightly they couldn't walk around the operating table while they worked.

"They had to go under the table because it was too small to go around," recalled Joel Parrott, the Oakland Zoo's chief executive officer.

That won't be an issue any longer. On Thursday, after years of planning and 15 months of construction, the new state-of-the-art, 17,000-square-foot Oakland Zoo Veterinary Medical Hospital opened its doors.

The zoo hospital will care for animals weighing 5 grams to 2,000 pounds at the $10.5 million facility, billed as the largest wild animal veterinary facility in Northern California. It was built with private donations and a voter-approved tax.

The hospital sits perched on a hillside above the zoo and has everything to care for animals, who are living longer lives in captivity thanks to advances in modern medicine, zoo officials said. As the animals age, they experience many of the same ailments humans do, such as eye problems, kidney failure and arthritis.

From the tiny tree frog to the mighty camel, the hospital has the technology, space, and staff to treat all of the zoo's 105 species except the elephants and giraffes, who will be treated in their enclosures.

The hospital is only for Oakland Zoo animals, though vets may provide care at times for free range wildlife, such as the California condor, Parrott said.


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"Our goal is to provide an optimal, comfortable respite for zoo animals in order to speed recovery from illness or injury," he said.

The facility will also allow for more animal research and teaching with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and partnerships with the California Condor Recovery Team, he added.

The sprawling hospital, has an animal care wing, with multiple holding areas and indoor and outdoor access for animals; an aquatic animal area with an indoor pool; several climate-controlled rooms for creatures requiring specialized temperatures; a quarantine area; a diagnostic lab with the technology to analyze patient information within minutes of blood sample collection; digital radiographic imaging that will allow vets to perform an X-ray with less radiation exposure. And there's a kitchen, staff lounge and changing areas for those in charge of all those procedures.

The hospital is the first step in the zoo's plan to expand about 54 acres into Knowland Park.

It was not built without its share of opposition.

The Friends of Knowland Park and the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society filed suit last year after the City Council's final approval of the project. They argued plans had changed dramatically since they were first presented years ago and there would be increased impacts on rare plants and threatened species.

As late as July, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled against environmental groups seeking to stop the zoo's plans to build the hospital as well as a gondola, new animal exhibit, camping area and an educational-interpretive center.

Ruth Malone with the Friends of Knowland Park group said in an email Thursday the group congratulates the zoo on its new hospital and its location close to the existing zoo.

"Our problem with the vet hospital was zoo management's decision to lump it in with the destructive expansion project into Knowland Park, which left us no options but to oppose."

Reach Kristin J. Bender at kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender.