Books: The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes

I don’t generally have much interest in stories written by veterinarians. I’ve read a few of James Herriot‘s stories, and found with some surprise that they weren’t as boring as I had expected, but I wasn’t eager to read more. When I read a brief review of The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes, however, I was intrigued. When I mentioned it to my husband and he also expressed an interest, I happily ordered the book. 

If I had thought about it, I suppose I would have realized that zoo animals need veterinary care just as much as domestic animals. But I really never thought about it. And if I had thought about it, I doubt I would have imagined the lengths that these wild animals’ owners, keepers, and doctors will go to, to treat the wide array of physical ailments that afflict the occupants of zoos and aquariums.

The book consists primarily of accounts written by over two dozen wildlife vets, about memorable patients they have treated. The book’s editors tie these together by emphasizing five different themes: the close bond that develops between human and animal; the technology involved in modern veterinary care; the physical demands of that particular line of work; the cases that are particularly hard to solve – or are never solved; and the ways that practicing medicine on one species (including humans) can help when treating another species.

Along the way, the reader learns some of the challenges that are particular to treating wild animals. Animals of any kind are harder to treat than humans, because they cannot verbalize what hurts, and they do not understand that the doctor is causing additional discomfort in order to relieve pain. But wild animals are far less likely to be cooperative patients, and can rarely be confined effectively while they recuperate.

They also pose particular problems when it comes to anesthesia. With mammals, the main issue is knowing how much is an effective dose (you don’t want a savage carnivore waking up during surgery) but not too much. Some of the large mammals also face the danger of suffocation if the head does not remain elevated during anesthesia. Then there are aquatic animals, where anesthesia is typically administered by dissolving it in the water. One chapter deals with the challenge of anesthetizing a tree frog the size of a dime, where neither a shot nor the underwater method will work.

The lack of reference books is another issue. Vets have been caring for domestic animals for a long time and there is a great deal of expertise out there to take advantage of in a difficult case. But how many vets have experience treating a neck injury in a kangaroo? Or anorexia in an eel or an octopus? (It was the eel anorexia case that made me buy the book. Did they actually have an eel psychiatrist? It turns out that anorexia in this case simply means refusal to eat, not the psychiatric disorder often witnessed in young women today.)

Sometimes expertise in human medicine helps. Getting a polar bear prepped for surgery is hard, but the actual hernia surgery isn’t that different from a human’s. (Getting it to take its post-operative medicine is another matter.) A chimp whose diseased eye had to be removed gets a prosthesis to take its place. A hippo in need of a root canal is a challenge to safely anesthetize, but the dental work is straightforward.

While I rarely take interest in the biographical notes about authors, I couldn’t help noticing some common characteristics among these veterinarians. It’s not surprising that many of them were fascinated by animals from childhood (maybe all of them were but didn’t all mention it). What surprised me more was how many of them come from the northeast region of the United States. There were also two from California, a couple from the midwest, at least five from other countries (two from Mexico), and some that didn’t say.

But as a native of Connecticut, I couldn’t help noticing that three were from that state. There are some things I associate Connecticut with – high cost of living, insurance companies, lots of traffic and people, and State Line potato chips. I hadn’t imagined it as a source of wildlife veterinarians.

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