Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
LIFE’S A ZOO
Always remain calm in a dire situation, especially when an angry gorilla is in the room.
IAM AN AVID SAILOR AND LOVE TO BE BY THE WATER. I DON’T LIKE the feeling of swimming upstream, though, and that’s how my life felt before I became an integrative veterinarian. Now I am where I belong and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It took a while, but I realized that being a vet wasn’t just what I wanted to do; it was what made me feel like I had a reason to be on the planet.
Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo, 1979
One cold morning in early fall, I was driving along Lake Shore Drive in my rusty Jetta. Lake Michigan was throwing a wavy fit to my left and the last tethered sailboats of the season were bobbing up and down frantically in the harbor. I took the Fullerton exit and headed for my parking spot in the back of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Animal Hospital. I felt at home there for so many reasons. Apparently one of my ancestors had designed the expansive outdoor gardens that fanned out from the main entrance, but the real reason I felt a sense of belonging was the animals and the people I worked with. I parked, pulled my sweatshirt hood over my head, jumped out into Chicago’s celebrated wind, and headed into the zoo. Walking through the clinic door, I saw the head tech, Joel, walking toward me. He looked up and smiled. He knew what was coming. I did this every morning. “Man,” I said, taking off my hood and shaking out my hair, “this place is a zoo.”
Zoo work is not for everyone. Caring for these incredible animals is an intense responsibility. The animals can’t choose their own food, habitat, or level of exercise, as they would in the wild. So it is the zookeeper’s responsibility to provide the very best care in the face of the limitations of captivity. As a veterinarian, I feel a similar responsibility for dogs and cats.
A zoo is a great classroom for anyone who wants a career caring for animals. In the controlled yet unpredictable atmosphere of a zoo, there are lessons about life as well as about medicine to be learned. On one day, a zoo tech may have to fashion a breathing tube out of duct tape, straws, or an organ pipe for both a thumb-sized elephant shrew and an Asian elephant. No one makes these commercially, and animals in captivity need them. A zoo tech just has to do it.
Many zoo employees are torn between love for their work and the animals they care for and a feeling of guilt that the animals are held captive. Knowing that as the world shrinks so does the wild where animals would live helps to ease that conflict and deepens our responsibility for their care. For a select few species there is actually hope they may one day be able to return to the land where their species originally became extinct. Maintaining the health and the environment for captive animals that are extinct in the wild adds gravity to an already difficult situation.
There is always a lot to do on any given day at the zoo. Often keepers or zoo staff will come in on their days off to help with an animal transport or to provide extra hands for a medical procedure. We were happy to have several extra pairs the day we anesthetized Kundu, the largest silverback gorilla in the zoo’s collection.
I had seen Kundu many times before. The keepers joked that he had a crush on me. One afternoon, as I passed by his enclosure, my boyfriend on my arm, Kundu went ape. He beat his chest and was clearly upset. The next time I saw him, he shyly averted his eyes, then placed his hand on the glass between us.
On this day, though, Kundu was due for his annual physical exam and blood work. Anesthesia is an extremely important part of safe zoo medicine. Keeping an animal asleep just long enough for the procedure to be finished, but not too long to cause harm, is the key. Generally this happens seamlessly, so we had photographers, keepers, vets, and techs looking on as we were administering anesthesia to this shockingly large, muscular primate.
We finished with the examination, measurements, and blood work. I was jotting down the last of my notes about the procedure for the hospital’s records when, a few feet away, Kundu woke up. Dr. Meehan was leaning against Kundu’s hip when Kundu suddenly sat up as if he were part of the conversation. He looked deep into the eyes of his vet, the man he hated most in the world, and who had recently darted him with a tranquilizer, and grabbed him by the arm.
Nobody moved or breathed, and I don’t even remember being able to form a cohesive thought. In one silent motion, Joel, the head tech, injected more sedation into the gorilla’s IV line. Several more motionless seconds passed as the gorilla and Dr. Meehan stared each other down. We all knew that sedative had to work. There was no quick escape from the room. I will never forget that moment. We had controlled the situation, up until that point, but how quickly we had lost it, and with potentially deadly results.
The sedation worked, and the silverback gorilla’s eyes glazed over. He let go of Dr. Meehan and slumped back onto the table. Those of us standing closest to Kundu wanted to collapse, just like he had. But our job wasn’t done. Without comment or hesitation, we finished our work before returning Kundu to his enclosure. Only then did Dr. Meehan say, “Nice needlework, Joel. I think I owe you a beer—or my life.”
Conditions can change quickly during operations on wild animals. That’s why it is so important to have a hardworking, trusted team. I learned to remain calm even in the most dire of situations—and to always be extra nice to technicians. These lessons are applicable to pet owners as well.
The greatest lesson I learned, though, from my time at Lincoln Park Zoo, was that I was on the right path in life. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to practice veterinary medicine. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about caring for animals—of all kinds.