Local vet wins Emmy award for work with jaguars

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Sean Dieterich — The Independent Dr. Ole Alcumbrac holds the Emmy award he won as host/producer for “The Jaguar Project.” The Emmy came from the Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Alcumbrac traveled to Mexico May 2009 to help rehabilitate two jaguars and release them back into the wild.

LAKESIDE – Of all the things that involve veterinary medicine, Dr. Ole Alcumbrac figured winning an Emmy award would not be among them. When he learned last month he had done just that, it was a pleasant surprise.

Alcumbrac, a doctor of veterinary medicine at White Mountain Animal Hospital, won the award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter, on Oct. 9. He received the award for his work with jaguars in Mexico in May 2009.

Emmy awards, outside of the ones that are televised nationally and require an invite, are divided by region. There are 20 regions that hand out Emmy awards for excellence in regional television. The Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter includes Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and El Centro, Calif.

Alcumbrac and his team were awarded the Emmy for Best Environment Program Feature/Segment for “The Jaguar Project,” by Dixie Dog Productions. Alcumbrac was credited as host and producer for the segment, which showed a team’s effort in rehabilitating and releasing two jaguars that had been illegally captured and placed in a Mexican zoo. The work involved dental surgery on both jaguars before they were released back into the wild.

Alcumbrac said “The Jaguar Project” has not been seen on television, but is found online at www.wildlifehealthservices.net and was sufficient to obtain a nomination in September. The Rocky Mountain Emmy awards were announced during a ceremony Oct. 9 in Phoenix, one he said he ironically could not attend because he was driving to Mexico to take part in another jaguar project. His videographer on the May 2009 trip, Carol Lynde, called him up as soon as they found out they won.

“The Jaguar Project” highlights the plight of two female jaguars and efforts to release them back into the wild. Alcumbrac said the two jaguars had been captured by farmers for killing livestock. While trapped, he said the jaguars had damaged their teeth trying to get out, which is problematic since the jaguar needs full length canine teeth to effectively hunt by biting to crush their prey’s skull.

“Without a full complement of canine teeth, to just release them would be disastrous.”

Since the Mexican government wanted to help jaguar populations and learn how to better manage the near-threatened species, Alcumbrac was contacted because of previous wildlife work in Mexico. He said he was asked to organize a team of professionals to help translocate the jaguars back into the wild.

“My job was to organize and raise the funds and bring the experts into the country to have a successful outcome,” he said.

Alcumbrac went with Wildlife Health Services, a conservation medicine organization he founded in 1994. Alcumbrac’s team included dentist Peter Emily, who he said was his dentistry professor in medical school. He said Dr. Emily had retired, but formed a foundation in which he traveled worldwide doing veterinary dentistry procedures.

Ivonne Cassaigne, the Mexican director of Wildlife Health Services, was brought onboard as another veterinarian and as a representative of the Jaguar Advisory Committee. Alcumbrac also recruited a team of wildlife biologists, who he said would work with the Mexican government in following the jaguars after they were released, monitoring movement patterns, kill sites and eating habits. He said his biologists came from both Texas and Arizona.

Alcumbrac said the jaguars in question were both healthy and at breeding age, so they could be part of a viable population if they were translocated.

“This was to establish a technique to translocate problematic jaguars to suitable habitats away from livestock and human activity,” he said.

Alcumbrac said they raised $30,000 for the trip, which started May 22, 2009, but still ended up short. As a result, he said the team members donated personal time and money to complete the project.

Alcumbrac and the team arrived in Chetumal and the zoo in which the jaguars were kept on May 23. Chetumal lies on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Dental surgery on the jaguars began the next day, with Alcumbrac putting each animal under anaesthesia.

Work on the older of the two jaguars, who was between 5 and 7 years old and weighed 130 pounds, involved fixing a broken upper right canine tooth. The jaguar was given a gold crown and a long stem for retention and strength. The younger jaguar, about 2 years old and at 80 pounds, needed a root canal in the lower right canine. The tooth also needed to be rebuilt using a composite.

Both jaguars, Alcumbrac said, underwent various tests to make sure they could be released. The tests included blood work, de-worming and vaccination and live prey training, all of which went smoothly.

The jaguars were released May 25 into the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, also located on the Yucatan Peninsula. The reserve is a tropical forest reserve nearly two million acres in size, rich in prey for the about 400 jaguars there. Alcumbrac said the release was the first of its kind and attracted much attention from both Mexican media and wildlife officials.

The younger jaguar, Alcumbrac said, was found dead nine days after being released into the reserve. He said the body was too badly decomposed, so the cause of death could be anything from dehydration to food poisoning to a poisonous snake bite. He said they ruled out starvation, as the time was not long enough.

The larger jaguar, he said, was shot by a poacher 45 days after its release. He said the jaguar was shot in the reserve, as tracking collars they placed on the jaguars prior to their release showed.

“The Jaguar Project,” Alcumbrac said, is now getting some attention. He said after winning the Emmy award, Authentic Entertainment in Los Angeles, Calif., signed him on for that video and another Wildlife Health Services video promoting conservation and wildlife work, “Vets Gone Wild.” He said Authentic Entertainment will shop those videos to networks in the hopes of getting a television pilot started.

Authentic Entertainment produces shows on the Food Network, The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Alcumbrac said Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, along with National Geographic and Spike TV, have also been looking at “Vets Gone Wild” as a possible television show.

“It’s a compliment to know you’re getting looked at,” he said. “I’ve been working in wildlife conservation medicine for 20 years. In the process, we do some very exciting things, we do some very good things for animals and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Now, Alcumbrac’s Emmy award adorns his office, on the mantle above his fireplace. It is a reminder that life is full of surprises.

“If anyone would have told me in veterinary school that I could do the wonderful work with animals I’ve been afforded, build on the pyramid of knowledge and win an Emmy for it, I never would have believed it,” he said.

•Reach the reporter at sdieterich@wmicentral.com


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