Sunday, January 4, 2009

Snow Leopard Tuesdays

When I was a junior in vet school, we had to choose the rotations that we would take as a senior. There were some minimum core requirements - a certain amount of surgery, anesthesia, neuter/dentistry, etc - but there were electives, too. Based on how you ranked them, and how many people applied for the available slots, the electives were assigned. There were some other programs as well, externships and preceptorships that you could apply to and request be worked into your schedule. Since a year of school at my U was about 9 months of coursework, there was also a three-month hiatus scheduled in, which you could take at any of three times: you could elect to have the summer off after junior year, and start rotations in the fall, or to take off the fall semester or the spring semester. The graduation ceremony was in May for all of us, but some of us would have finished our rotations three months prior to that, and so conceivably some of us might have had jobs (if all liscensure was in place) prior to going through commencement.

One of the ones I applied for was a preceptorship at the Zoo. I didn't get it; based on how I'd ranked my choices, how other people had ranked THEIR choices, and when my required rotations were scheduled, it didn't fit. But as it happened, another preceptor had had a conflict of some kind, so the two weeks before the fall semester (when I had elected to resume my rotations) were left without coverage. I was on the alternates list, so they called me. Would I like to use the two weeks I had left to do a mini-preceptorship? Why YES, thanks, I'd LOVE that.

As it turns out, the first day of those two weeks was a holiday, so I started on a Tuesday. I found my way to the secluded, mysterious back side of the zoo, the place most people never even think about: the place where orphan babies are reared, where sick animals are treated, where deceased animals are necropsied so as to learn as much as possible about the animals in life and in death, with an eye to improving management for both wild and captive animals, and preventing other deaths.

The vets and techs were expecting me, and made me welcome. I stashed my backpack and, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, waited for what came next. Which, as it turned out, wasn't quite what I was expecting.

"One of the keepers called this morning and said she'd seen blood in the snow leopard enclosure," announced Dr. C, the head vet. "You and Dr. K can go over and get the cat while we get ready over here."

Well, all righty, then. I guess we just jump right in to the fast lane here at the zoo.

Dr. K assembled a group of items: a dart gun (taken out of lockup and carefully inspected), two large plastic tackle boxes full of drugs, syringes and other medical flotsam, a stethoscope, and a large blue tarp, folded into a neat 2x2 foot square. We took these items out to the electric carts that the vets use to travel around the zoo. These are similar to golf carts, except that they have a little flat bed behind the tiny two-seater cab. We loaded the tarp and tackle boxes on the bed, Dr. K secured the dart gun, and we set off.

The zoo gates were not yet open. We had the place to ourselves as Dr. K zoomed along the asphalt paths criss-crossing the zoo. Dr. K is an intrepid driver, and in the absence of human traffic he zipped along at a pretty good clip, ignoring whatever dips and creases there were in the road. We were quickly at the snow leopard enclosures, where we toted our supplies into the building and spoke to the keeper. She had seen blood for a few days, but no evident injuries, on visual inspection. Initially she had not been sure which cat it was, but by rotating cats in order she had determined it was one of the males, and she pointed him out.

The way the zoo was at that time - and I've not been to that particular zoological garden for 15 years or more, so I can't say how it is now - there was a display habitat, where the cats would be during the day, and a second, indoor enclosure, which was more utilitarian in appearance, but provided area for privacy, rest, play and feeding, and where appropriate, breeding and birthing. The display habitats for the leopards were rather gorgeous; depending on the type of cat, it might be glass-fronted on one display side and/or barred on the other, with grilled skylights recessed into the ceilings to provide natural light. There were murals on the walls to depict the animals' natural habitat, along with rocky ledges and/or cleverly-made and realistically-painted concrete trees for perching and basking, whatever vegetation was appropriate to the habitat, and little waterfalls and streams both for aesthetic appeal and for the practical realities of providing drinking water. They were connected to the indoor enclosures by (literally) cat-walks, overhead walkways that were completely enclosed with metal grilles. There were doors on either end - cleverly concealed in the display habitat - which could be opened or closed to control the movement of the cats between enclosures.

The keeper let the injured cat out of the indoor enclosure and into the cat-walk. She closed the doors, trapping him in the cat-walk. The leopard walked to the end of his cat walk, where normally the door would be open for him, and stopped. He looked around at us. For an instant his eye met mine, direct as a spear to the heart.

Dr. K loaded the dart gun, took careful aim, and fired. The cat jumped and hissed, flattening his ears in annoyance. The keeper opened a door so that he would leave the cat walk and go into a habitat area, where we could go in and retrieve him once he fell asleep. Dr. K loaded a syringe with an anesthetic cocktail while we waited, explaining that it would be given IV to keep the cat asleep while we transported him to the hospital.

When the cat was out cold, Dr. K and I went into the enclosure.

"Here," Dr. K said, handing me the syringe. "Give him this. I'll hold off the vein."

My heart took a big hop and started doing a quick-time march. Better not miss.

Dr. K held off a vein in the back leg of the cat. I did an alcohol wipe-down and, lo and behold, a vein the size of my pinkie finger popped right up. Well, can't miss THAT. I pushed the drug and capped the syringe. Dr. K was already in motion, spreading the tarp on the floor and grabbing the leopard's back legs. We moved the cat to the center of the tarp and picked up the corners, carrying it quickly out to the cart. The keeper hurried behind us with the tackle boxes, setting them behind the cab.

"I'll drive. You monitor the cat," said Dr. K. I hopped backwards onto the cart, letting my legs dangle over the side and helping Dr. K drag the cat half into my lap, still draped in the tarp. I jammed the stethoscope into my ears as he folded himself back into the cab, and by the time he'd switched it on I'd found the cat's heart, a slow and reassuringly powerful thump in my ears. Dr. K maneuvered the cart through a tight turn and out onto the path. And then he put his foot down and we rocketed off at top speed.

I'd thought Dr. K was driving pretty fast before, but now I gained some new perspective. Naturally you can't risk the cat waking up in the middle of the zoo - which had opened by now, although on a weekday morning there weren't many people around. Still, you can't have a drugged leopard wandering around loose no matter HOW few people are there, so speed is of the essence. Dr. K clearly enjoyed speed for its own sake, and now that he had some incentive to push it a little, he wasn't going to stint.

So there I am, perched on the flat bed of the cart with my feet dangling and 150# of somnolent snow leopard draped across my lap. As one hand is holding the stethoscope and the other is hanging onto the leopard with a death-grip (because it wouldn't do to have it go flying off my lap in some high-speed turn), I have no means of hanging on. We are not slowing down for bumps. Every time we hit one - and for some reason there seem to be approximately six times as many now as there were on the way over - the tackle boxes hop into the air, the cat hops into the air, I hop into the air. The tackle boxes crash down and slither around, rattling happily. I am having a hard time keeping my 'scope on the leopard's heart. After about two minutes I remind myself that respiratory arrest precedes cardiac arrest, so if the cat is still breathing, the heart is still beating. I can feel the rise and fall of its furred chest under my hands, so I drop the bell of the stethoscope and use both hands to hold onto the cat.

As we come streaking into the bay area behind the hospital, all hands are on deck. Dr. C is there and so are the techs, C and D. They descend upon me in a group, gathering up the tarp corners and shuffling fast into the building. The cat is weighed and then shuttled with all haste to the OR, where he is intubated and connected to the gas anesthetic.

Big sigh. Now we can relax a little; the cat is safely anaesthetised, he is on oxygen, he has a heart monitor on him.

The vets begin their physical exam. The source of the blood is quickly found: the cat has an abrasion on one pad, deep enough to ooze blood every time he steps on it. While that is being treated, C is scraping tartar off the cat's teeth and D is setting up the endoscope; as long as the cat is out, you do everything you can. Dr. K sets up a syringe and tells me to pull blood samples off the jugular (he does have a gift for making my heart jump into my throat) and watches without comment as I manage to do a jugular stick without fumbling or shaking. Despite the thick hair on the leopard's neck, the jugular is luckily quite large and palpable; I'm grateful this isn't a marmoset we're working on. Dr. K gives the bloods to the clin path tech and he and Dr. C start the endoscope.

While everyone is circling around, doing all that can be done, I am suddenly in a tiny one-person oasis of stillness. I have a moment to look - really LOOK - at this glorious animal. He is long and slender, but somehow he seems dense and substantial and real in a way that is hard to describe; it is somehow both arcane and immediate, as if the weight of his leopardness is a thousand times greater than the weight of bone and muscle, as if it gives him a gravity that draws my orbit toward his. I pick up his heavy paw, feeling the dense, robust bones of his muscled forearm, the thick tendons, the meaty bulk of the upper arm. At the same time I am thinking of the lightness and grace with which this animal moves, marvelling at the combination of these opposites into one creature. But as it happens, the snow leopard is a creature of opposites. Rare, but easily bred in captivity. Shy, but direct of gaze. Lithe but amazingly powerful. Fragile in numbers, but tough enough to survive in one of the harshest environments on earth.

On his shoulder, I find a tiny mat, a hairball not much bigger than a pea. I pull it out of his coat, smoothing down the dense fur, shaded and subtle even in the strong light of the OR. I move out of someone's way, to the end of the table. There his tail trails off, relaxed, drooping lazily toward the floor, nearly as long as his body. I lift the end of it gently. I've never had a tiger by the tail, but I've had a leopard. A sleeping leopard, but still: not an experience to be forgotten.

Around me, time suddenly snaps back into place. Dr. C and Dr. K are talking about moving the cat back to his house. They crank the anesthetic gas all the way up for a few minutes, getting him deep, and the we reverse our earlier frantic activity. The leopard goes back onto the tarp, and we shuffle him fast out to the cart. I hop into the bed and gather him up, and Dr. K is behind the wheel and firing it up at the same time. We have less time now than before; the injected meds have worn off and the gas anesthetic will only hold him for a few minutes. By now, there are more people in the park as well, and Dr, K can drive only so fast. I have one arm around the leopard's belly, the other around his chest, my hand buried in fur and feeling for breath. His big head rests heavy on my thigh, buffered against the bouncing of the cart as we fly back the way we came.

At the leopard house, the keeper is waiting anxiously, pacing and watching for us. She has been radioed we are on our way, and she has the door to the building open by the time we have the tarp slung between us. On a bench outside the display there are two people; one asks us anxiously if that animal is dead.

"No," says Dr. K, laconically.
"Only sleeping," I add, panting, as we do our shuffling quick-step back into the building.

We settled the cat into his enclosure, waiting until he was lifting his head and rolling onto his sternum. Dr. K left instructions with the keeper, who nodded repeatedly without interrupting, intent on his words. We went back out into the sunny August morning, the Zoo awake around us, bustling now; the cat awake behind us, drowsing in his private domain.

I was only there for two weeks, but every Tuesday turned out to be a snow leopard day; unlike some of the keepers, the snow leopard keeper trusted the vets to do right by her charges, and didn't hesitate to call them in if something was amiss. Aware, perhaps, of their rarity, she was a vigilant defender of their well-being, guarding them and their genetics against a hoped-for day when wild populations might be re-established in some of their lost range; and more personally, fiercely protecting their best interests whilst in her care.

You can't blame her for that ferocity of feeling on their behalf. I defy anyone to be around such an animal without feeling awe.

I still have that little mat of snow leopard hair.


Holly said...

You are a wordsmith, drawing out a picture that can be as easily seen as felt.

What a magnificent animal this must have been, and what an honor to have been so trusted by his keeper.

I bet you treasure this memory.

Dragon43 said...

What fun and lasting memories for a wonderful animal.

Della said...

What a great story! I felt like I was practically there! For a minute there I was pretty sure I could feel the weight of that cat resting on my lap. :) I think I would have kept that bit of hair too.

MaskedMan said...

I've had a lap full of tiger... Well, tiger cub, anyway. I only spent five minutes with that humongous cat-child, and didn't really connect with it on the intimate level that you have. You convey the sense of awe better than I might have.

Pat said...

You should gather your stories and have them published. I am thrilled to read them.

Michelle said...

Being a dedicated 'cat person', I've always wondered what it would be like to meet a big cat. I read this post with my tortie sprawlled out on my lap, and I could just imagine what it would be like if she were about 100 or so pounds heavier! Although I don't think I'd want to have to scoop that litter box... :)

Jenn said...

Wow. Just. Wow. The wild cat exhibit is my favorite at the zoo. I can lose myself and lose track of time just watching them exist. They are truly amazing, remarkable animals...what an experience, what a memory!

AKDD said...

Glad you guys could enjoy it with me, albeit removed in time and distance. It really was an interesting time at the Zoo.

More stories about that later... as if you could shut me up.

I need orange said...

Wow. I would SO still have that little bit of hair.

It occurs to me -- I bet zoos could make some bucks, allowing paying guests into the operating room.

I would pay to be able to touch the cat, respectfully and with honor, as you did............

In a situation where neither of us were endangered by my presence.

MaskedMan said...

Allowing random, even paying, customers into the clinic, and especially into surgery, is problematic from a number of angles - For starters; there's often little enough space for the staff as it is, and; people may fail to understand what they're seeing, leading to at the very least hurt feelings, and at worst, well... worse.

That said, there are a number of facilities that do have specially layed-out and scheduled 'behind the scenes' tours, for, as suggested, premium customers. These are very carefully thought-out and organized, though, and may be beyond the scope and capacity of most facilities.

However, since you mention that mat of hair... I'm willing to bet some money could be raised off of selling locks of animal hair gathered from that shed by the animals on display. That kind of thing would require very little thought - It'd practially sell itself.

AKDD said...

I can't speak for other zoos, but that one had pretty minimal space in the OR. OTOH, there are some that are set up with observation windows so you can see into the nursery (where the cute babies are), plus or minus the kitchen and the OR. Also, there are docents who volunteer in the hopital area - not the OR itself, but doing other things that bring them into some contact with the animals in-hospital.

I think most zoos have governing boards that make policy decisions about stuff like access to the hospital area. I might be wrong about that, though.

Reagan said...

Aw, this is probably my fave post of yours.

And what a precious last line. Big smile. :)

Dragon43 said...

I forgot to show you this.....

A day I will not forget....

AKDD said...

Regan, glad you liked it! It was one of those unforgettable days.

Dragon, could not get the link to work. Could be I'm just inept at these things.... :(

I need orange said...

I agree that letting random persons have actual access to the animals under any circumstances would be problematic. Probably so problematic that it isn't worth considering.


I don't live close enough to my zoo to volunteer there.

MaskedMan, your "sell the shed hair" idea is excellent......

I bet it would sell well, and wouldn't cost much to have a volunteer? bag it up and tag it.

Is there any possibility that disease or parasites could be transmitted to humans or pets this way, I wonder?

AKDD said...

Maybe. I guess it would depend on what disease or parasite. Not sure on that.

MaskedMan said...

There's no reason the shed hair couldn't be washed/sterilized. Or maybe sealed into a neat little transparent plastic tchotchke like a paperweight or reefer magnet. Or all the above.

There's probably a thousand different ways from dead simple to holy-cow complex to market something like that, depending on your budget and target market.