Zoo Vet

“Once a week, veterinarian Jim Aarons takes a walk on the wild side. Tigers, jaguars, monkeys, and pythons become his patients, a far cry from his usual clientele of dogs, cats, and horses. Aarons is the official veterinarian for the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero. Like Noah with his ark of exotic animals, Aarons and zoo director Alan Metzler oversee the health and care of the zoo’s 120 animals.”

— North County Tribune March 26, 1987

In the fall of 1986, I received a call from Alan Metzler, director of our local zoo. He was looking for a new veterinarian to help with the medical well being of the zoo’s animals. Bringing him from the San Diego Zoo, the City of Atascadero hired Alan to upgrade their small zoo. The ultimate goal was to have it accredited with the AZA, The Association of Zoos, and Aquariums. We needed to improve much of the physical plant and to have a more comprehensive medical oversight in place. Once accredited, we could qualify for new areas of funding, and be allowed to trade with other zoos.

I borrowed a book by Dr. Murray Fowler titled “Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine.” Teaching exotic animal medicine at UC Davis for years, Dr. Fowler was a veterinary icon, establishing the first zoo medicine program in the world at UC Davis in 1967. When I was attending school I had little interest in learning the medicine needed to care for big and little creepy crawlies.

Now I needed to expand my medical repertoire into this new world of furry, feathered, and scaly creatures. I outlined a yearly vaccination and worming protocol, and I gained access to the dart blowgun they used. It was a blowpipe with special darts, modified syringes that could deliver an injection of drugs through a feathered dart using the blowpipe.

With Alan’s help, I developed techniques used for simple procedures. I visited other zoos during times Mary, and I went out to visit friends and relatives, this way the trip became a tax write-off, another bonus of my independent study methods. That's why I could write my wedding trip off too.

Another time Alan and a helper brought a large plastic garbage can into the office, pulling an eight-foot python out of the pail. The python lacerated itself on a metal edge as it tried to escape by slithering out of its’ enclosure through a metal vent. I tranquilized the snake while Alan and Tom held the lacerated area up to my view. Even with tranquilization the python slowly turned and rotated toward the end of the procedure, so I was always readjusting my hands and line of vision to sew the laceration closed. In this picture I'm holding a five foot Red-tailed boa I've pulled from its habitat.

I spent a day with the vet at the Houston Zoo and spent another day with the vet at the St. Paul Zoo. Although much larger than our zoo, I became comfortable evaluating the animals in their bedrooms behind their public displays. Additionally, I enrolled in exotic animal medicine courses whenever I went for CE, my continuing education credits.

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