Authors: DVM Lucy H. Spelman
Mary Lockwood Spelman
Edward Kozo Mashima
by Jack Hanna
Patient. Persevering. Caring. Compassionate. Dedicated. Highly-skilled and ingenious. These are just a few of the words that describe veterinarians, people who have basically given their lives over to the well-being of our animal friends.
During thirty-plus years working with all kinds of creatures, I've met many vets around the world. Whether they treat our family pets or take care of wild animals in zoos or in remote locations, these doctors are made from the same exceptional mold.
Veterinarians can't meet friends for dinner on a Saturday night without the possibility of being called away to treat an ailing critter. There's no such thing as an average day at the office. Emergencies happen dailyâand without warning. Some animals are treated quickly, while others take days, weeks, and even months of treatment. If there's no progress, vets go to work exploring other avenues to get their patients back on their own four (or two) feet.
In diagnosing patients who cannot talk and don't understand what is being done to them, vets have to be extremely resourceful and creative, and those doctors who work with wild animals even more so. What do you do with an eel that won't eat, for example? Or with an animal in the forest that you know is injured, but you can't even find. Some animals manage to hide from the doctor for days or even weeks. In these cases, it takes a combination of stamina, smarts, intuition, and a bit of luck just to find the patientâand that's not even the hardest part. How do you pacify a creature to whom you are entirely alien? How do you, for instance, help calm the nerves of a whale shark riding in a huge fish tank perched on a ship that is pitching up and down on a rolling sea?
Vets encounter such troubles every day, and must deal with them with a clear head and psychological detachment. That's a tough job! Often, these doctors can't separate themselves completely. They too must endure worry and sadness. Vets' lives are intertwined with their animal patients. Those of us who work with wild animals develop bonds with them as wellâusually from a safe distance, of course. The special relationship we have with a favorite animal, whether it's an octopus or a tiger, makes it hard for us to see it suffer in any way.
Every animal can benefit from veterinary care. This field of science has come a long way in recent times, and wild animalsâhere at home and around the globeâhave benefited tremendously. Technology has made diagnosis and treatment much better and more efficient. Vets now treat wild animals in zoos, aquaria, national parks, and wildlife reserves, paving the way for greater successes in conservation. These doctors help breeding groups of endangered species live longer and healthier reproductive lives, often using sophisticated techniques to help them reproduce more quickly. They also treat wild animals in their natural habitats.
In Lucy Spelman and Ted Mashima's wonderful and inspiring book,
The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes
, you'll discover what it's like to be a vet working with wild animals in every imaginable setting. Through this collection of tales told by vets from around the globe, you'll explore their odd, interesting, sometimes crazy world, and enjoy every minute.
These stories demonstrate what zoo, aquaria, and wild animal veterinarians are made of. They are tough and resilient people, highly trained doctors, caring souls who have dedicated their lives here on Earth to the animals we love. In the process, they develop a “oneness” with animals. I like to think this is true for all of us. From the funny Texas dung beetles to the majestic African elephant, we are a part of Earth's life forms and thus share a common bond.
At one time, such work with endangered animals was only a dream. I hope that veterinary care for both captive- and free-living wild animals continues to increase. Sadly, there are many small, isolated populations of rare species worldwide that need help from each and every one of us. If we respect all creatures, as the vets in this book do, we can help maintain nature's delicate balance.
Director Emeritus, Columbus Zoo
Jack Hanna's Into the Wild
As zoo vets, we are often asked to share our true stories, our most memorable cases. We lecture, visit schools, attend fund-raisers, lead behind-the-scenes tours, write for newsletters, and give interviews to the media. We usually begin by explaining that virtually anything is possible in our profession: intensive care for a turtle with a crushed shell, ultrasound to confirm pregnancy in a dolphin, cataract removal in an eagle.
The title “zoo vet” is expandable to “zoo and wildlife vet,” “wild animal vet,” and “aquatic vet.” Each refers to the same basic profession, the practice of zoological medicine, defined as medical care for wild animals as opposed to domestic ones. These veterinarians work for zoos, aquaria, universities, wildlife rehabilitation centers, national parks, and protected wilderness areas. They also contribute their expertise on behalf of conservation and endangered species.
So what's it like to be a zoo vet? people often ask. How close do you get to your patients? Have you ever been injured by one of them? Do you become attached to the animals, and if so, isn't it hard when they die?
Some questions touch on the ethics of keeping or confining wild animals: Don't you wish all of your patients could live freely? Conversely, is anything truly “wild” anymore?
We hope the stories in this book, written by twenty-nine of today's top zoo vets, will answer many of these questionsâand others the reader may not even have thought of. Our contributing authors bring unique perspectives to each case, depending on their training, the settings in which they work, and the motivation that inspired them to become vets in the first place. Their exotic and interesting patients range all over the animal kingdom, including a rhino with chronic foot problems, an orphaned whale calf, a kangaroo with a broken neck, a herd of escaped bison, and an anorexic eel.
Though every case is different in this compilation, certain patterns emerge. The big challenge for any zoo vet is to distinguish the normal from the abnormal. In the process, we tackle the same set of problems: when, where, and how to get our hands on the animal, and whatâif anythingâto do for it. Since our patients don't walk into the clinic on the end of a leash, even a simple physical exam requires some type of restraint or anesthesia. To avoid the associated risk, zoo vets usually observe first and act second.
Wild animals are also exceptionally good at hiding clinical signs of injury or illness, aside from the obvious broken limb or squirting diarrhea. Their doctors look for subtle changes in attitude, activity, or appetite. In response, the patient learns to accept the watchful gaze of any human who carries a stethoscope, wears binoculars, or smells faintly of disinfectant.
Once the diagnosis is made and treatment begins, vets rely even more on their nontechnical skills. Like Dr. Dolittle, they know the most reliable information comes from the animal itself, and they'll frequently check in on their patients. Compassion, empathy, and a bit of intuition go a long way toward helping wild animals heal.
We offer these stories not only to illustrate the complexity of modern zoological medicine but also to give the general reader a rare opportunity to experience the special bonds that develop between zoo vets and their wild animal patients.
Lucy H. Spelman, DVM, and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM
Pediatricians who work with infants and vets who work with wild animals share a major challenge: their patients can't speak. Each must rely on someone else to tell them what's wrong. The physician asks the child's parent several all-important questions: When did this start? What are the symptoms? Is the patient better or worse today? Domestic animal vets ask the same questions of the pet owner or farmer. But zoo vets must seek out this information from a variety of keepers, animal caretakers, curators, managers, and scientists, and it may often be sketchy or incomplete.
After gathering bits and pieces of history, our next step is to observe the animal. Unfortunately, most of our patients either run away or threaten resistance when they see the vet coming. Hooved animals, birds, and reptiles will flee if they can; tigers, bears, Komodo dragons, and other predators may show aggression. We can easily pick up tiny animals like frogs and jellyfish, but handling them has been shown to cause them stress. So our first exam is a visual one, performed from a safe distance, often with a good set of binoculars.
It's at this point that we develop an initial bond with the patient. The wild animal begins to tolerate our presence. In cases where the injury or illness is mild, that may be the extent of our interaction. But if we need more information, the relationship intensifies. In order to treat untamed animals, zoo vets must find ways to connect with their patientsâwithout being bitten, scratched, kicked, or poisoned.
Some wild animals can be conditioned to the presence, and even the touch, of a doctor. In exchange for a food treat, zoo rhinos will stand quietly in a stall for ultrasound examination. Free-living mountain gorillas will allow vets to approach within a few feet to observe a wound. But with most wild animal patients, the only way to gather the necessary health data is to capture and anesthetize them for a complete exam.
Now our connection to the animal becomes much more tangible. A hands-on exam offers an invaluable opportunity to examine an individual thoroughly. It may even serve as our first introduction to a species. In the backs of our minds, we're curious about, even in awe of, our patients. So we work in teams of vets and technicians in order to learn as much as possible in a short amount of time. While we focus on the health problem at hand, we also document the normal anatomy and take samples to establish baseline physiological data.
If the animal is chronically ill, requiring repeat exams, the relationship between doctor and patient becomes more dynamic. Tolerance develops into familiarity, mutual respect, even companionship. This is particularly true with highly intelligent and long-lived species like great apes, elephants, dolphins, whales, tortoises, parrots, and raptors. And always there is the bond of responsibility: each veterinarian takes a professional oath to help animals in need.
Emotions can also fuel and shape these bonds. We feel anxiety about the best course of treatment, relief when the patient recovers, sadness if it dies. For difficult and unusual cases, we rack our brains, pore through textbooks and journals, and call our colleagues for advice. After four hours of surgery on a polar bear or a nightlong vigil with a kangaroo in intensive care, we worry about the outcome. We put all of our veterinary skills on the line.
If the patient recovers, we're happy for the animal, professionally satisfied, and personally relieved. More often than not, however, the animal feels the exact opposite about us. Every zoo vet has a story about a former patient that thanks its doctor by hissing or spitting, throwing excrement, or roaring and charging.
Inevitably, there are cases where we fail. The diagnosis may elude us, the injury may be too severe, or advanced medical therapy may not be practical or possible for a wild animal. In such situations, our job is to alleviate suffering, which sometimes includes euthanasia. Our relationship with the animal helps us make such decisions with compassion, empathy, and concern for the animal's quality of life.
In the stories that follow, doctor and patient form especially close connections. Each bond is unique, and some are closer and more emotional than others. The patients include an eel, a chimpanzee, a fawn, a bear cub, and a whale calf.
Lucy H. Spelman, DVM