Sometimes being a large animal veterinarian means getting involved in species that are above and beyond your average Hereford 4H steer or Suffolk lamb. I believe my experiences are akin to the small animal practitioner whose clinic is sometimes subject to people bringing in snakes, rats, turtles, and the like. My experiences just happen to involve the local zoo.
Our local zoo actually is quite large and has a decent collection of animals, from camels and zebras and a bunch of different types of antelope (who knew there was more than one type of antelope?), to a tiger, wolves, various reptiles, and exotic birds. And primates; macaques, to be exact.
My initiation into the world of zoo medicine just happened to be on my very first day of emergency service. Fresh out of vet school and raring to go, I was ready to treat a colicking horse or deliver a breech calf. I was not, however, ready to suture up the face of a macaque that had decided to get into a dispute with another macaque. This particular situation was never covered in vet school. No, sir.
However, one of the nice things about vet med is that the basic physiology of most mammals is very similar. In other words, wounds heal the same way on a macaque as they do on a horse. So, in theory, if I can suture up a horse leg, I can suture up a macaque face.
I learned many things that rainy Tuesday evening at the local zoo on my first emergency call in the history of my professional life. Mostly I learned that nothing is ever time efficient at a zoo. First you talk about your plan, then you tranquilize the animal, then you tranquilize again because you missed hitting it with the dart the first time, then you rush to get the animal on the exam table, then you realize you forgot something in the truck so you run into the dark to find it. Then you remember as you are touching the primate that the only thing you were ever taught in vet school about primates was to ALWAYS DOUBLE GLOVE, and you haven’t double gloved. Then you spend the next thirty minutes worrying that you’ve just contracted tuberculosis or hepatitis or Ebola or some other hemorrhagic fever virus…
But in between the stress of the animal stirring under anesthesia and the stench of monkey breath, you realize that tissue is tissue no matter what mammal it’s on, and by golly, that macaque face is actually stitching together quite well with the suture material you usually use on horses using surgical tools meant for small ruminants. And in the end, the macaque had his face back together (it was his cheek that bore the testament of his fight), woke up from anesthesia no problem, and ended up healing like a champ. (I was reassured by the zoo staff that primates heal remarkably well, so I wasn’t to worry if I did a bad job. Um, thanks?) To this day, I have yet to come down with TB, hepatitis, or anything remotely resembling Ebola.
Let’s save the topic of zoonotic diseases for another day.
Dr. Anna O’Brien