University of Melbourne Magazine

Podcast transcript – The Zoo Vet

Val McFarlane: In Parkville, Melbourne, the surgical team are on standby. A patient called Isabella is about to give birth – she’s a couple of weeks overdue. We’re not at the Royal Women’s Hospital – we’re at Melbourne Zoo and the patient, Isabella, is a spider monkey. Kath Adriaanse is part of the team looking after her.

Kath Adriaanse: Of course the plan would be that the baby would stay with her, but she’s had an issue in the past with where her placenta formed, it formed in the wrong spot… having had that happen before it means you are at higher risk of it happening again, so we are on alert in case she might need to have a caesarean or in case there is a mismothering event if she is ill, she might not feed the baby as quickly as she should, so we have this all set up ready to go so it’s already warm and the baby can go straight in there.

Val McFarlane: Kath is veterinary resident at the zoo. On an average day she could be caring for any one of the three thousand, three hundred animals there, from the tiniest fish right up to an elephant.

Kath Adriaanse: So this is our surgery. This is the main surgery that we use for any procedure that we do at the zoo unless it’s a really big animal that we might down in an enclosure, or if it’s a really quick procedure.

Val McFarlane: The surgery looks like one you’d find in any hospital. There are digital x-ray machines, a kit for delivering anaesthetics, and endoscopy equipment.

Kath Adriaanse: We have lions in here, the tigers would come here – all sorts of creatures, everything from the tiniest little bird or even fish. So, we’ve certainly done fish anaesthetics here. They don’t need this breathing apparatus.

Val McFarlane: So just how do you anaesthetise a fish? Well, it doesn’t involve needles, or a tiny mask.

Kath Adriaanse: With a fish we put the anaesthetic in the water. just normal water that they have in the tank, and there’s a couple of different types of anaesthetic agents you can use that go into the water. And then they sort of breathe it in and they go to sleep. So if we have to take them out of the water for something, if they have to have surgery or something like that, then what we can do is use a setup where, this is much easier with fish that are bigger, where we would put a tube in their mouth and push water through their gills with a syringe so that they can keep breathing basically, so it’s a sort of weird fish ventilator. If we are anaesthetising a frog we make a gel… put it on their skin and that makes them go to sleep.

Val McFarlane: Diagnosing what’s wrong with an animal – or even identifying that there’s something wrong in the first place – can be challenging. The animals can’t tell Kath and her colleagues if they’re sick, so it’s up to the zoo team to monitor them closely for any changes. The keepers are good at spotting when something’s not quite right – if an animal has gone off its food, or is looking lethargic.

Kath Adriaanse: You know in a dog or cat you can say ‘well they’ve come in, they feel unwell, I’m going to feel their tummy, maybe I’ll get a blood sample, or I’ll listen to their chest and you get all this really good clinical information without having to do anything very invasive to the animal, but we don’t really have that option with very many species. Most of them we are not really able to examine them until they are anaesthetised on the table, or from a distance in their enclosure.

Val McFarlane: Kath moved from South Australia to study the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Melbourne.

Kath Adriaanse: When I was looking at where to go to to get my veterinary degree, Melbourne had just transitioned over to the DVM program, it was the best postgraduate course on offer. I already had my degree behind me. Melbourne had the international accreditation, and that was very important to me because I guess I had a desire to maybe go internationally at some point in my career, it was a bit of a no brainer for me to choose Melbourne.

Val McFarlane: When Kath goes outside to do the rounds, it doesn’t take long before tourists approach her.

[Kath gives directions to tourists looking for the butterfly garden.]

Val McFarlane: With 1.4 million visits made to the zoo every year, it’s hardly surprising.

Kath Adriaanse: Sometimes we make a joke about going out into the zoo not wearing our uniforms so that we can get things done but it’s Ok, it’s nice.

[Child: I think there’s a crocodile in here. Yes over here. A crocodile.]

Kath Adriaanse: We’ve just walked into the reptile house it’s a little bit more quiet in here,

Val McFarlane: and a little bit dark.

Kath Adriaanse: And a little bit dark, yes. This device that you can see here in the middle of the reptile house is actually a reptile swim gym. Our keepers are encouraged to put forward ideas for things that they can design to help the animals and the idea is that when snakes are in captivity they’re not in as big a space as they would be in the wild so we worry about them perhaps getting a little bit chubby or, you know, not having good muscle development. There’s a little current that they swim against. It’s pretty cool.

Val McFarlane: Gone are the days when zoos were just somewhere for people to look at caged animals. Today, they’re at the forefront of animal conservation and the team at Zoos Victoria runs breeding and recovery programs to support critically endangered species. Unfortunately, not every animal can be saved.

Kath Adriaanse: We see quite a lot of wild penguins coming in actually, maybe they’ve had a tough time out there and they’re quite skinny. Or Sometimes, unfortunately, we do see them come in because of human problems – so entanglement in fishing line, and things like that so most recently we’ve been working with a little penguin in here that did have a fishing line entanglement. Unfortunately, he didn’t go very well. We sort of did our best with him and removed the entanglement but unfortunately he was sort of too compromised. By the time he came in, he was already very, very thin and we couldn’t get him over the line unfortunately

Yeah, it is really challenging I think particularly from a wildlife aspect. Certainly when wild animals come in and when it’s an obvious human impact it’s really hard

Val McFarlane: But thankfully there are also lots of success stories. A few months ago, the team noticed that one of the African wild dogs had a swollen testicle.

Kath Adriaanse: They do fight a lot so it just could have been just something that happened with one of his brothers having a bit of a tussle. But it didn’t go away… and when we took him up to the surgery we were able to ultrasound the area and it looked very abnormal, and there was in fact a tumour in the testicle but we managed to remove it all.

So this one is his brother who has two floppy ears and you can see him coming now with one floppy ear.

Val McFarlane: Looks quite healthy.

Kath Adriaanse: Yeah.

The other challenge is with these guys, is their family ties are very important and they do all sorts of disgusting things like urinate on each other and make them smell like themselves. So, when we take an animal up to the vet surgery of course we clean them up, they’re very clean and they come back smelling like all the drugs that we’ve used, the anaesthetic, and it’s always a really big worry when we have to reintroduce one back into the group But as you can see… it all went really well. He integrated back into the group really nicely and we got that great result

Val McFarlane: Despite the huge number and variety of animals at Melbourne Zoo, Kath reveals she has a soft spot for chickens – yes, that’s right, chickens. But as far as the zoo animals are concerned – she doesn’t play favourites.

Kath Adriaanse: I actually don’t really have a favourite. This is sounds a bit cliched but I think they all have their individual traits which are amazing. So I really enjoy working with all the species. That’s why I wanted to be here rather than working in private practice so I get to see so many species every day.

Val McFarlane: Remember Isabella, the pregnant spider monkey we told you about at the start of the show? Well, sadly she lost that he baby – but the good news is she’s pregnant again so the zoo team is keeping everything crossed for a successful delivery this time round.

You’ve been listening to the 3010 podcast. This episode was written and edited by me, Val McFarlane, and produced by me and Verica Jokic. Chris Hatzis was our audio engineer. Theme music by Rory Clark.

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