Akron Zoo worker says proper diet very important for health, quality of life of domestic, exotic animals
By Connie Bloom
Beacon Journal staff writer
Gary Riggs, an exotic animal veterinarian for the Akron Zoo, places a contraceptive implant in a female snow leopard. Riggs, who has worked for the zoo for 20 years, says a proper diet is vital to pets and exotic animals.Exotic animal veterinarian Gary Riggs, who has been with the Akron Zoo for 20 years, daily ministers to the aches and pains of living creatures with scales, talons, beaks, paws, hooves, fins, humps, shells and whiskers.
Riggs also has two practices: Barberton Veterinary Clinic and the North Coast Bird & Exotic Specialties based at Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital.
Riggs and his wife, Denise, live in Clinton with two dogs, two cats and three birds.
Q: Are there pet-food recalls in the world of exotic animals?
A: There are none currently. There have been from time to time. None are involved in the current national recall.
That recall is crossing the spectrum of specialty foods and impacting a lot of people and a broad group of animals…. Even some very good product lines have had some recalls. People need to look at the list (on the Web site www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2007/NEW01590.html) and make sure theirs hasn’t shown up on it.
Q: Where does the zoo food come from?
A: All different sources. A lot of animals have very specialized diets, which come from a number of vendors all over the country. We have to get, for example, frozen fish for the penguins and some of our ducks. The flamingos eat specialized food — a flamingo chow — to help them keep their pink color, which in the wild they would get from the food in their surroundings.
The snakes eat frozen rodents. The meat for the cats has to be ordered and comes in looking like giant hamburger patties. The food is trucked in several times during the week. The zoo is like a big restaurant. The keepers go through the recipe books and “cook” for the different animals every day.
Q: Is any of it manufactured in factories?
A: Yes, to some degree. Food for the hoof stock and birds comes in bagged like a dog chow, llama chow, flamingo chow. There’s a food for hoof stock that even has birth control built into it. That’s obviously a very specialized diet.
Q: How important is the quality of food an animal is fed?
A: It’s extremely important in keeping up an animal’s health. They are what they eat. The ingredients and components are a main factor in keeping them healthy.
At the zoo, each of the diets is reviewed for nutritional quality as well as what is known as enrichment so they get a varied diet.
Q: How do you feel about food that’s been genetically modified?
A: The jury is still out…. Studies that came out early on seem to be fine, but I think we need to look a little deeper…. If I had my choice, we’d stick with natural ingredients.
Q: How can you tell when an animal is not thriving on his food?
A: It depends on the animal. In birds, they’ll have poor feather quality. They can also have some feet issues — scaliness. If they’re breeding birds, they don’t breed as well. They’re a little less active.
Reptiles will be not as active and not as good a weight gain. In other animals on poor diets with too many fats, you’ll see obesity.
When an animal’s on a bad diet, they won’t show signs early on, but in the long run, they will. There’s little if any quality control in exotic animal diets. A lot of pet owners have to prepare the food themselves — you can’t rely on an outside institution. There’s not that sort of quality control in the pet food industry.
Q: You hang out with lions, don’t you?
A: I had an old friend in Norma, who died last year. She was one of the largest female lions I had ever seen and she was boss of the family. Simba, her mate, listened to what she said, but at the same time, they’d look out for each other.
They loved to sound off at dusk, a little slice of Africa in downtown Akron.
Q: What’s the strangest case you ever treated?
A: There are so many. When I think I’ve seen it all, something new comes in the door…. I’ve had to take X-rays of electric eels wearing rubber gloves so I don’t get shocked.
It’s interesting to see the symptoms that exotic animals show. Symptoms go on for so long that people will say their pet hasn’t eaten for a year — that only happens in the exotic animal world. Solving their problems takes investigative work. Taking care of their pet fish or snail means everything to their owners.
You learn early on not to judge people by the pet they have. You can’t judge what’s important to them. These animals can be such a large part of their lives. It’s really gratifying, it runs the gamut.
Q: How many times have you been bitten, peed on, stung and kicked?
A: A lot if you count the peed on. I’ve been bit a number of times, nothing real real serious. It’s the nature of the business. Fortunately, I have a real great staff of people who help. Things happen when you least expect it. You have to be on guard and know the risks.
Q: What can animal aficionados do to help exotic animals?
A: My wife and I started a nonprofit foundation called Wild 4 Ever to help them in the wild. We’re a new foundation and supporting a number of projects. We are helping animals locally and worldwide. Currently, we’re supporting jaguars.
The Web site is www.wild4ever.com. People can make donations online.
You can reach Connie Bloom at 330-996-3568 or e-mail cbloom@ thebeaconjournal.com.