Monday, December 22, 2008

Tales and tails of animal medicine

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, veterinary medicine, anthologies

Imagine the steadiness of hand needed to do eye surgery on a frog that would fit inside a human eye, the skills (& drills!) needed to perform a root canal for a hippopotamus, or the bravado of walking up to a fully awake one-ton crocodile to get scale scrapings and blood samples. In The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes: and Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients, edited by Lucy H. Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM, we find ourselves well beyond the cat/dog/horse/cow sort of veterinary medicine of James Herriot. In this volume, 28 zoological veterinarians record memorable stories of animals they've treated, both triumphs and failures, and the kind of innovative medicine that has frequently led to new methods for human medicine.

In the title account, a Sumatran white rhino had serious foot troubles. It turned out that the concrete and gravel paving of his zoo "home" was too harsh; he was used to swampy footing in which his entire broad foot carried his weight. The rough surface was wearing down his hooves. Now, a rhino has three hooves on each foot, analogous to horses' hooves, but where a horse has one hoofed toe per foot, the rhino has three. The vet's solution? With help of a farrier, they epoxied twelve custom-fitted horseshoes onto the critter's "toenails".

A zoological veterinarian might occasionally work on someone's pet, but that pet is more likely to be an iguana or goldfish than a housecat. Most often, they care for the animals held in zoos or in the wild, primarily wildlife reserves worldwide. In the wild, in particular, they are tasked with giving a medical "edge" to the most endangered species, delaying or averting their extinction.

Zoo vets get into some peculiar straits. When the dung beetles (scarabs) in a zoo exhibit got mites, it turned out the only way to help was to hand pick them (with little forceps) while holding the ungrateful beetles still. You can't use an insecticide to kill bugs on bugs! When a polar bear gets a hernia, of course you have to anesthetise him first, but then it takes a forklift to carry the limp patient to a specially-reinforced operating table. When an elephant has a wire snare caught on his leg, the easy part is getting it off; the hard part is tracking him for more than a week until you can get an anaesthetic dart into him.

While a most of the accounts tell us of successes, there were a few sadder stories. A lemur died, of causes still unknown. The tumor on a goldfish could not be totally excised, and chemotherapy was only partly successful, so it had to be returned to the owner with a less-than-happy prognosis, alive but not expected to live very long. When two sea dragons (like sea horses, but more decorative, and about a foot long) had their swim bladders damaged in transit to an aquarium, several innovative techniques failed to save their lives.

I couldn't help thinking that nearly all the suffering recorded here was due to the human arrogation of "managing" all the life on Earth. Several of the authors had similar thoughts. People tend to think they can just take over everything and "manage" it…and this is the best side of things! All too often, they don't think at all, just keep clearing land for more farms or factories. But it is like deciding to manage your own breathing. For a few seconds, to consciously breathe—in, out, in, out—might be exhilirating, but it would soon seem like the most deadly drudgery.

In the face of human "management", human arrogance, human greed and sometimes outright wickedness, zoo vets keep a few of the "collateral damage" victims healthier than they might have been.

No comments: