There is never a dull moment when caring for hundreds of animals of many different species. In one day, we could care both for a bird and a moose. Obviously, the work can be challenging. Caring for animals requires extensive knowledge, but we also get to learn something new every day.
The key to keeping animals healthy is prevention. Vaccination is required as a preventive measure. Vaccines are the same as those used for pets. For example, a cougar receives the same vaccines as a cat. Moose and other cervids are administered similar vaccines to those of bovine as they are sensitive to the same pathogens (diseases). We also vaccinate some bird species, horses and mammals like camels and polar bears for the West Nile Virus. Controlling internal and external parasites is another crucial precautionary measure. This involves regular stool analysis (coprology) for each species prior to administering the appropriate vermifuge. In most cases, the vermifuge is mixed in with the animal’s food or administered orally or by injection if the animal has to be captured and examined.
Hoof trimming is also part of preventive care. Hooves are trimmed 2 to 3 times a year for several species: bighorn sheep, Siberian ibexes, horses, donkeys, goats, muskoxen, cows and some moose. Prevention also involves remaining up to date on emerging diseases to protect the animals. As most of our animals are wild, in most cases, we cannot proceed with a full examination without anaesthetic. Once they are asleep, we can fully survey their health situation. We do regular blood work (hematology/biochemistry) to ensure that all organs are healthy. When required, we take X-rays and carry out other diagnostic tests, such as urinalyses, skin scrapings and endoscopic examinations. Finally, we do dental exams and scaling as required.
Spring and summer are very busy seasons with a whole slew of newborns to care for. Issues generally include diarrhea, pneumonia, umbilical infections and lameness. Sometimes, we have to deal with birth complications. It also happens that females abandon their young. That is when we step in, become their adoptive parents and bottle-feed them! It’s a tough job, but oh, so rewarding!
Our team of animal keepers and naturalists are the veterinarian’s eyes on the ground. Through their co-operation and that of our animal health technicians, the veterinarian is able to do her work and protect the health of all animals.
The first response when an animal is sick is to report the situation. The veterinarian then visually assesses the potential patient. Depending on the severity of the situation, the animal health team will decide whether to keep the animal under observation for 24 to 48 hours or respond immediately. It is important to assess the risk associated with capture and/or anaesthetic versus the current condition. What a tough decision to make!
In a recent case, the animal keeper in the Nature Trail Park reported seeing an adult female bison with a left forelimb lameness. The bison was walking gingerly, in obvious pain. The first thing to do was to check out the animal and try to isolate it in an enclosure. The visual assessment revealed no wound, no marked swelling, normal claws (hoof toes) and good appetite. An anti-inflammatory was then administered to relieve pain and see how the animal would respond to treatment. The bison was then put into a restraining cage where injections could be safely administered over three consecutive days. After that period, lameness had improved by 75%. Still, the animal was kept in isolation for a week-long rest at the end of which, all was back to normal and the bison was sent back to its herd. If the lameness had deteriorated, preventing the animal from supporting itself on the leg, we would have been forced to administer an anaesthetic to conduct a myoarthroskeletal exam and take X-rays with a handheld device. However, the animal’s condition did improve, the treatment worked and anaesthesia was avoided. Every case is unique and procedures change based on several factors: age of the animal, severity of the condition and outdoor temperature (- 40 °C or + 35 °C). The risk is greater for capture and anaesthesia in extreme temperatures. The location of the animal must also be taken into account. Moose, for instance, can go into hiding deep in the forest. We must use common sense and be prepared to adjust to circumstances.
It is important to occasionally cooperate with fellow veterinarians in other zoos or related veterinary disciplines in order to provide the best possible care to our animals. A veterinary dental specialist, for instance, will be contacted for a root canal procedure on a tiger with a broken canine tooth. When complex procedures or exams are required for certain species, such as magnetic resonance imaging, animals are transported to a veterinary hospital that has this type of specialized equipment.
Veterinary medicine is demanding work, with no letting up. It is also an opportunity to go above and beyond to provide a better quality of life to animals. When animals are your passion, this work provides enormous satisfaction and gratification.