By LINDA WILSON FUOCO
January 21, 2007
How do you administer anesthesia to a giraffe?
It’s something that is very seldom done, and there are “only about three veterinarians in the world who have expertise with that,” said Dr. Robert Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.
The really hard part would be getting a breathing tube down that long, long neck.
“You know how we ventilate a giraffe? With a specially modified leaf blower,” Hilsenroth said. “And you need to use a ladder to hold their neck in place.”
Diagnostic procedures, treatment and surgical techniques for zoo animals have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. Veterinarians can now save animals that would have died or been euthanized 10 or 20 years ago.
Because zoo veterinarians care for so many species, no individual vet can be an expert on every animal.
“One of the very interesting things about being a zoo veterinarian is you are constantly working on animals and doing things that have never been done before,” said Barbara Baker, a veterinarian by training and background. She is currently not working as a veterinarian – she is CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
“Advances are happening almost at the speed of light, partly because of the Internet,” Hilsenroth said. The 900-member Zoo Veterinarians group meets yearly to discuss new treatments and advances. Thanks to the Internet and group e-mailing lists, on a daily basis animal doctors can get answers from veterinarians who have successfully treated the same problem.
“And we owe so much, in the way of thanks, to our human counterparts,” he said of the medical doctors and dentists who help with zoo surgeries and procedures.
Giraffe surgeries are rare, and none has been done at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Zoo surgeries, in general, are infrequent. But dental procedures, like the root canal that Koda the Pittsburgh polar bear underwent earlier this month, are increasingly common.
A Bridgeville, Pa., dentist, Dr. David Regine, has been volunteering his skills for 13 years at the local zoo. While his patients are usually people, he has plied his trade on the polar bear, a beaver, an alligator, a leopard, a lion, an elephant and a gorilla.
On one occasion he drilled decay out of the tooth of a meerkat and put in a filling.
“The gorilla had an abscess that was potentially life-threatening,” Regine said. One of the Pittsburgh elephants, Savannah, had an infected tusk that had to be extracted.
“Teeth and tusks break or crack and infection gets in,” he said. Such infections can travel to the chest or the brain, which could result in death to the animal.
“We have over 30 consultants – zoo veterinarians and medical doctors” who step in to help with zoo animals, Baker said, including ob-gyn specialists and pediatricians, who have been called in to treat young apes and monkeys.
Another member of Koda’s dental-surgery team was Pilar Fish, the full-time veterinarian, for the past four years, at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Fish administered the anesthesia.
She’s done a lot of surgery and administered anesthesia on all kinds of animals, including birds and fish.
After four years of college and four years of veterinary school, she studied an additional five years to become a zoo veterinarian. That included internships and residencies at 20 different zoos, including Pittsburgh’s.
There are 29 veterinary schools in the United States, and about half of those have courses that can start students down the track to becoming zoo veterinarians.
“In zoo medicine, you are treating everything from snails to elephants,” Fish said. “You have to mix drugs because what you need for a specific animal does not exist.”