Weighing bears, corralling otters and healing wild beasts

Veterinary medicine students perform general wellness checks on the animals at Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria County. Zoological resident Lauren Kane helps guide the students as they examine Molly, an American black bear. All photos, video and text by Fred Zwicky

SEP 30, 2019 8:15 AM
FRED ZWICKY

HANNA CITY, Ill. – How do you weigh a fully grown American black bear? These veterinary medicine students know the answer, and it’s a bit more complicated than just saying, “very carefully.”

Watching these soon-to-be veterinarians is a bit like watching a synchronized military operation unfold in the field. The team moves into a wooded area with a full-sized, stainless steel exam table in tow. Some students haul tubs loaded with medical gear needed for the exam: everything from IV bags to syringes for blood samples or administering vaccines. Others carry tools needed for dental cleanings or equipment to monitor an animal’s vital signs. Every student has a role to play.

Wildlife Medical Clinic medical director Sarah Reich, center left, coordinates the lift as the team works together to weigh Molly, an American black bear.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

I’m a photographer, so I’m snapping pictures as close as I safely can without becoming a patient myself.

These students are in the final year of their curriculum at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. They are here to perform general wellness checks on the animals at Wildlife Prairie Park, an 1,800-acre wildlife preserve in Peoria County that features more than 50 different species of animals native to the Midwest region. The park’s enclosure settings strive to match the natural habitat of these creatures in the wild. Many of the animals are rescues that cannot be released.

Veterinary medicine student Megan Britton inserts an IV needle as the team examines an American black bear.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

Over the course of two weeks, these students will examine everything from bobcats, cougars and river otters to wolves and bears, as well as smaller creatures such as snakes, frogs and turtles.

Veterinary clinical medicine professor Dr. Samantha Sander helps guide the student teams during the field exams. Sander, who has worked professionally at major zoos across the country, says this program gives students a great opportunity to translate their traditional animal care learning to zoological species.

Each student has an assigned task. They set up breathing tubes for intubation and prepare other supplies before an exam.
Photo by Fred Zwicky
Students examine Molly’s incisors.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

The teams put together an individualized care plan for each animal – and a strategy for how to anesthetize it. While a physical exam of wildlife may be very similar to an exam on a dog or a cat, wild animals can be dangerous, Sander says. They must be anesthetized to make them as sleepy as necessary, both for human and animal safety.

The student in charge of anesthesia has several options for administering the sedating drug, ranging from hand injection to a pole syringe. In the case of our American black bear, Molly, a dart is the safest choice.

Veterinary medicine student Jane Do uses a microscope to look at a blood sample collected earlier in the day.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

Why weigh a big black bear? Molly, like many humans, is a picky eater who has favorite foods that aren’t that healthy for her, says Adrienne Bauer, the park’s director of education and animal programming. Molly’s weight has ebbed and flowed more than just the normal seasonal weight gain hormonally triggered in bears every winter.

“Before we had the vet exams, we were very reactive to things,” Bauer says. “So, if an animal wasn’t feeling well, wasn’t behaving normally, we were calling basically an emergency vet at the time because we didn’t know what was happening and we didn’t even have a baseline to go off of.”

The students must create the equivalent of a veterinary medicine office at each animal enclosure. They haul equipment for the next exam.
Photo by Fred Zwicky
Veterinary medicine student Rachel Hallman jokes with her colleagues during post-exam testing.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

Beyond dietary changes, the animals also get treatment for chronic conditions at these exams. In some cases, serious conditions can be identified before they manifest in animal behavior, giving the park options for care plans.

Doug Dillow, who recently retired as executive director of the park, says the impact of the wellness care from the Illinois veterinary team has been major.

“We’ve completely changed many of our park procedures in our animal care,” he says. “It’s just raised the level of their standard of living and their overall health in a major way.”

Sander safely captures a silver fox without having to sedate the animal.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

To an outside observer, the days look long and hard. But vet med student Erin Lee says that’s not the case at all.

Oakley the river otter gets a full exam after avoiding various attempts to sedate him earlier in the day. Students monitor breathing and heart rate as they start the exam.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

“For students, it’s a fantastic opportunity. You’re hands-on with a lot of species,” she says. “You learn how to work with many different people. And, at the end of the day, everything just comes together. You feel like a doctor and you get to use multiple facets of your knowledge.”

Lee’s classmate Samantha Johnson agrees.

Sander explains how to use a dart to sedate an animal. The goal is to safely deliver the required amount of sedative without distressing the animal, she says.
Photo by Fred Zwicky

“I like to be able to help these creatures because they’re not able to help themselves,” Johnson says. “Besides, having a large carnivore under anesthesia is exciting.”

So, what does it take to weigh a black bear? An industrial-strength animal stretcher, straps to attach the stretcher and bear to a hanging scale, and seven people with a pole to hoist all of it up off the ground.

Molly weighed in at a svelte 280 pounds, a much-improved number from the 442 pounds she weighed at her exam in 2015. I’m not sure if there is a medical privacy policy for bears, so please don’t tell Molly where you heard that.

At the end of a long day that began with discussion and prep for each animal examination, then the series of field exams, closing with lab work back at the lodge, classmates Gaby Escalante, left, and Rachel Hallman spontaneously high-five each other at the tail end of the day.
Veterinary students in the final year of their University of Illinois curriculum team up to perform general wellness checks on the animals at Wildlife Prairie Park, an 1,800-acre wildlife preserve that features more than 50 different species of animals native to the Midwest region.

Source: Illinois News Bureau

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Weighing bears, corralling otters and healing wild beasts
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Weighing bears, corralling otters and healing wild beasts
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How do you weigh a fully grown American black bear? These veterinary medicine students know the answer, and it’s a bit more complicated than just saying, “very carefully.”