Call of the Wild

Suchka, an Audubon Zoo leopard, goes under an anesthetic when zoo vets conduct an examination
Suchka, an Audubon Zoo leopard, goes under an anesthetic when zoo vets conduct an examination

New Orleans, La. -- Dr. Bob MacLean prepares to dart a patient who does not appreciate MacLean's bedside manner.

It's moving day for the Audubon Zoo's two leopards, who are being transitioned into a new exhibit. While they are taken to temporary cages, MacLean takes the opportunity to give Sasha and Suchka a checkup.

Being their doc requires a certain degree of marksmanship for MacLean, who must load a tranquilizer gun and fire a dart to put the leopards under.

"My responsibility is everyone's safety when we're dealing with a dangerous animal," said MacLean, the zoo's senior veterinarian. "So, I have to make sure that animal is safe for everyone to be around."

He notes all of the big cats have different personalities: "Some are very skittish, some are more relaxed."

Earlier in the day, curators coaxed a pair of porcupines into two crates.

"This is the business end of a quill," said Curator of Animals Joe Forys, holding up one of the hairs a porcupine had shed as they regularly do.

Dealing with a patient with hair shaped like a spear poses certain challenges. "They flair those out and they're instantly three times the size that they were before," Forys said.

While this is not Dr. Doolittle's practice, MacLean and his associate, Jim Grillo, work to develop certain relationships with the zoo residents.

"I try very hard to maintain a presence with the animals routinely so that they know who I am," Grillo said. "They're used to me. I can visit with them."

Just as medical doctors see patients, there are rounds to make, including a foot exam for an elephant.

On this day, they deal with two emergencies, both involving birds.  "Hornbill came in, she's having difficult breathing," MacLean said. "So, she's on oxygen right now.

In this job, the veterinarian is the ultimate generalist.  "We obviously can't know everything about every species, but we know who to call," MacLean said.

MacLean and Grillo rely on outside experts and on zoo keepers.  MacLean told us, "The scary things are when animals decide not to eat and you can't figure out why," which happened a couple weeks ago.

When Jean the elephant suddenly lost her appetite, all they could do was keep her hydrated. "Which we have to do through an enema," MacLean explained.

Grillo pulled that duty, saying it's "not a routine day at the office," and Jean snapped back to health a few days ago after dealing digestive issues.

Grillo, who says he's "always been fascinated and loved wild animals," took an unlikely career path to his job.  He was a medical doctor specializing in head and neck cases when he decided to follow another calling and go the veterinary school.  "At age 53, I started," he laughs.

Of 35 people in MacLean's college veterinary class who heard the calling to be zoo vets, he was one of two who stuck with it. "Because it does take a lot more effort," MacLean said.

The rewards come from the successful cases.  "When we have a baboon in heart failure as we did a few several months ago, it's very satisfying to manage that emergency and get him out of heart failure."