BY Karyl Carmignani
Photography by Ken Bohn
The radio crackled to life: a bongo in the East Africa field exhibit was in distress with a difficult labor. Jen Pollard grabbed a pre-packed box for just such emergencies that contained obstetrics sleeves, saline, intubation tubes, and other emergency room necessities, and headed to the truck. “Ten-Four, we’ll be there in ten minutes,” she calmly responded. Such is life for the dedicated registered veterinary technicians working at the Safari Park.
Creatures Great and Small
The registered veterinary technicians (RVTs or vet techs for short) at the Safari Park are ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice to skillfully tend to a broad range of animals, from a tiny hummingbird to a 5,000-pound rhinoceros. With over 500 different species across the 1,800-acre Safari Park that could require cutting-edge medical care, the RVTs must be well versed in species-specific and individual needs and idiosyncrasies. Whether it’s a case of a wildebeest with gastroenteritis (showing stomach upset symptoms), a gemsbok with a puncture wound, a rhino with an abscess, a crowned crane with a foot infection, or an arthritic gorilla, RVTs are prepared to provide the best care for their patients. While many animals are treated at the state-of-the-art Harter Veterinary Medical Center at the Park, others have to be treated in the field. “When we treat our animals in the field exhibits, we have to watch out for other animals coming over to check us out,” said Jen Pollard, Safari Park RVT and RVT coordinator. That, and working outside in potentially muddy, rainy, and sweltering conditions, “makes it more of a wildlife situation and really keeps us on our toes.”
The workday begins at 6 a.m. as the RVTs read and respond to animal charts and start treatments. A “rounds tech” is the point person who assigns staff to animals in the hospital. On this day, Jen prepared 38 vaccinations for the Nubian ibex herd, which was scheduled for their annual vaccine boosters. “When we have to get our hands on the animals, we want it to go as quickly as possible to minimize stress on them,” explained Jen. “So preparation in advance is key.” Each precisely measured vaccine was placed in an upright rack for easy access at the site. An hour later, after the veterinarians arrived, there was a “hospital rounds” meeting.
Each animal’s room has a “hidden camera” so staff can observe their candid behavior from the meeting room, noting the animal’s appetite, gait, movement, and vitality, and decide the best course of treatment. “Each animal gets personalized, caring, professional treatment,” said Jeanette Fuller, hospital manager and RVT VTS (Veterinary Technician Specialist), whose career here spans 40 years. She went on to say that there are many different career paths for registered vet techs: lab work, hospital, research, veterinary drug sales, and many other possibilities. In addition to the hospital work, good communication with others and being flexible are key attributes of a successful RVT. “It is difficult and competitive to be able to work at a place like the Safari Park,” said Jen. “It’s different every day, and we work with different animals. Our skills really get utilized here!”
Once the patients at the hospital were taken care of, Jen, a veterinarian, and three other staff members headed out to vaccinate the Nubian ibex herd located in an off-exhibit area. This solid little goat species from northeast Africa and parts of Arabia is sure-footed and fast, making catching them a challenge. But their keepers are well practiced in herding them into a catch pen and gathering them up, one at a time, to place them across the lap of waiting keepers. One person holds the animal’s horns; the other holds its rear legs. The ear tag numbers are noted, and the RVTs administer vaccinations and an oral parasite medication, in addition to checking their ears for ticks. They also collected a vial of blood from each of eight animals that were “shipping out” to the Zoo, part of shipping protocol. The animals get a hoof trim, if needed. In less than five minutes, each ibex was released back into the large area to rejoin the herd. The entire operation is a lesson in calm, efficient teamwork. “Our RVTs are integral to our practice,” said Associate Veterinarian Meredith Clancy, DVM. “They are the powerhouse of veterinary medicine. We are blessed with exceptionally well-trained RVTs who work well with each other and independently.”
On the way back to the hospital, Jen explained how involved they are in education, providing residency opportunities for veterinarians and externships for RVT students, which provide experience with exotic animals. “We spend a lot of time teaching and explaining,” she said. And they don’t take too many visitors at the same time to “ensure each student gets the personal training and attention they need.” We returned to an anesthetized four-day-old eland calf having a wound irrigated and stitched up on the operating table by Senior Veterinarian Jack Allen, DVM, as Kristin McCaffree, RVT, filled in the procedure form. “We couldn’t begin to do what we do without the RVTs,” Dr. Allen said. “They make it happen.” There was also a red-fronted gazelle in a toasty warm, padded recovery room, getting IV fluids. It had been delivered by Caesarian section; the little one will be reintroduced to the group when it’s a bit older. While the baby animals can seem somewhat manageable, Kristin said that the animals can be unruly patients and “sometimes they don’t work with us…you have to weigh what’s best for the physical and mental health of the animal and what they will tolerate.”
By late afternoon, the operating room was quiet and the RVTs were restocking and packing the mobile carts and their personal “orange box,” which contains the 101 necessities for a field call. They cleaned, organized, and replenished supplies. The animals in the hospital don’t have to do anything but rest up and get well. With our devoted staff and seamless teamwork, they stand a really good chance of reclaiming robust health.