Six Flags Wild Safari Park veterinarian Dr. Ken Keiffer
Posted: Sunday, November 6, 2011 5:55 am | Updated: 7:10 am, Sun Nov 6, 2011.
By Matt Chiappardi Staff writer | 0 comments
JACKSON — Even a trained and credentialed doctor of veterinary medicine has to improvise a little when caring for the fauna of Africa and Asia.
“There aren’t a lot of courses (in medical school) on how to deal with a 10,000-pound elephant or a 700-pound tiger,” said Ken Keiffer, one of the veterinarians in charge of caring for the 55 species at Six Flags Great Adventure’s Wild Safari in Jackson, Ocean County.
For the Mount Laurel resident, practicing medicine on animals most New Jerseyans see only in zoos is the rule, not the exception.
While many of his peers focus on household pets such as dogs and cats, Keiffer treats animals every day as varied as 100-gram snakes, bears, bison, baboons, and iconic predators such as lions and tigers.
“You have to be able to extrapolate what you learned in school,” Keiffer said. “A Siberian tiger is almost like a 700-pound house cat. Bears can be similar to dogs. You’re constantly refreshing what you learned in vet school over and over.”
Keiffer, 30, graduated from Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. His first full-time job in the field was at Wild Safari. He interned at the park for several years before joining the staff permanently and said the opportunity to work with the animals is his dream job.
Each day, Keiffer oversees up to a dozen treatments to keep the animals healthy.
He’ll cruise around the 350-acre park to check out every one of the 1,200 creatures living there, deciding which animals need to be medicated, which need to have blood drawn, or the rare occasion of which has to be tranquilized for a medical procedure.
“If we need to use drugs to have them fall asleep, we want to make the procedure go as quickly as possible,” Keiffer said. “If a tiger has a cold, we try to use oral medication (in its food) as much as possible. If we need to get our hands on them, we’ll knock them out. But safety is our No. 1 priority. There’s no fooling around.”
The cases Keiffer sees in a day can range from the common cold to some cancers and other issues as the animals age.
Cancer for animals in captivity is a particular problem, mostly because they usually live longer when cared for by humans, Keiffer said.
“A lion may live 12 to 15 years in wild, but in captivity that can increase to 25 years,” he said. “You start seeing cancers and other age-related diseases. It’s tough because treatments for things like that are limited.”
While Keiffer has certainly become an animal lover since deciding to pursue a veterinary degree as an undergraduate, his childhood wasn’t one filled with four-legged friends.
“My parents never even allowed me to have any pets,” he said. “So I’ve sort of rebelled against them and take care of the most exotic animals.”
Keiffer was always drawn to animals as a child growing up in Bordentown Township and took a special interest in television nature documentaries.
He has pets now, but they skew toward the exotic side, too. He’s the proud owner of an albino corn snake and four tarantulas.
“If only my parents let me have a dog or a cat,” he said with a laugh.
Keiffer said his parents are proud of his career, especially when they hear about the experiences he has with the animals.
Right out of the starting gate, the new veterinarian was able to be a part of a rare event at the Wild Safari park.
“In January 2009, we had the first lion cubs born here in 20 years,” he said. “The (lioness) turned out to be a horrible mom, and we had to raise them by hand.”
Keiffer bottle-fed and cared for the two cubs, Bicari and Zhara, until they were about 6 months old. By that point, the young lions were nearly 100 pounds, and it was a little difficult for Keiffer to let go and return them to their habitat area.
“You have to learn to separate yourself from the patient in this field,” he said. “It’s good for us, and it’s good for the animals. By six months, they’d become capable of being dangerous. They may not mean to bite you, but can still do some serious damage.”
Nearly three years later, the cubs are almost fully grown, weigh almost 300 pounds each, and are on their way to tipping the scales at 500.
It’s making such connections with the animals that saddened Keiffer when he watched the tragedy at a Zanesville, Ohio, animal sanctuary unfold in the news media.
Last month, the owner of an animal sanctuary allegedly set loose 56 exotic animals, including many large predators, before killing himself.
Authorities in Ohio wound up shooting and killing the majority of the beasts after several failed attempts to tranquilize them.
While Keiffer lamented that so many animals had to be killed, he didn’t see any other solution to the situation.
“I have to agree with how they handled it,” he said. “This was happening at night. If you try to tranquilize a lion, he’s going to run off into the woods and not fall asleep for 20 or 30 minutes. An animal can cover a lot of ground in that time.”
Keiffer said human lives were potentially in danger, and that had to be weighed during the crisis.
Forty-eight animals were killed by authorities in Ohio. Only six were saved and sent to the Columbus Zoo, according to news stories.
What incensed Keiffer, however, was the reported condition the animals were in while at the sanctuary.
“They were supposedly underfed and malnourished,” he said. “It’s a misconception that just because something is called a sanctuary, that’s what it is. You need to get a permit to open one, but after that, there’s no oversight until you want to get an exhibitor’s license. It’s a major animal welfare issue.”
Keiffer said there needs to be a push for stronger federal regulation to protect exotic wildlife in such situations.
That can help ensure that the animals are treated well and remain available as a living resource to be cherished and protected, he said.
“It’s our job as a human race to take care of the planet,” Keiffer said. “If we don’t care for these animals, my eventual children and grandchildren won’t have the enrichment of seeing them in the zoo or traveling to Africa, Asia, or wherever to see them in the wild.”
Matt Chiappardi: 609-871-8054; email:
mchiappardi@phillyBurbs.com; Twitter: @mattchiappardi
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