SEP 30, 2019 8:15 AM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
To an outside observer, the days look long and hard. But vet med student Erin Lee says that’s not the case at all.
“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.
“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.
Source: Illinois News Bureau