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World Veterinary Day: Join these doctors in India who save lives in the wild

Wildlife vets | Photo Credit: 10016

Dr Aswathy S is in a hurry. Her patient, who needs immediate attention, is at the hospital and rather irritable. It goes without saying: you don’t keep a python waiting.

Caught in a net and severely injured, the 10-foot-long python, weighing about 12 kilograms, has been brought in by the Forest Department. At her animal hospital in Harippad, Kerala, Aswathy performs a surgery, then puts it on intravenous drips. The python is currently recovering well and waiting to be released back into the wild. 

Dr Aswathy opened her hospital in February this year, the realisation of a long-cherished dream to open a centre to treat exotic animals. Over the past months, she has already received an impressive number of patients, including birds, fish and reptiles.

Dr Aswathy S

Dr Aswathy S | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

After graduating from Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Pookode, and with a fellowship from the American Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians, Aswathy started her practice in 2016. So far, she has treated iguanas, ball pythons, flap-shell turtles, frogs, ferrets and meerkats as a consultant veterinary doctor at wildlife parks in South India and farms for exotic animals. From routine birth control to a complex surgical procedure on a 12-centimetre-long albino iridescent shark fish, each case she handles is unique.

The job of a wildlife veterinarian may guarantee an adrenaline-rush, but it also involves challenging tussles with uncertainties. When working in a jungle, medical equipment and facilities are often improvised; and yes, there is a always a distinct possibility of the patient trying to eat the doctor. The settings can be varied: a leopard-riddled village in Andhra Pradesh, the open wilds of Wayanad, or the Madras Crocodile Bank in Chennai — but the one consistent factor is a healthy respect for creatures of the wild.

“We adapt procedures based on the animal and its unique conditions,” says Dr Aswathy, explaining how, unlike surgeries on humans performed in super-speciality hospitals, these procedures often have to be done using the best of what is available, on patients with unpredictable temperaments.

A leopard on the prowl

By about 10am, Dr Phaneendra Andra had already attended to his morning patients —  a babbler bird with an injured wing, a parakeet with a broken leg, a bruised civet cat and an Indian pariah dog with an ear injury. Then came the call for help from Ankampalem village, Andhra Pradesh: A leopard had strayed into the paddy fields.

A veterinary Assistant Surgeon at the Department of Animal Husbandry near Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, Dr Phaneendra left for Ankampalem immediately. In the meantime, the leopard had already whipped up a frenzy in the village, having attacked three people. As people thronged the area, the scared animal climbed a coconut tree.

 “The leopard escaped that day despite our efforts. Then, it was spotted about 70 kilometres away from Ankampalem; it had strayed into a thatched hut. We went armed with the tranquilising equipment and a team of over 200 personnel including a group from the CRPF,” he says. After a 12-hour-drama the leopard was finally captured, its thunderous roars still ringing in Dr Phaneendra’s ears. 

Dr Phaneendra Andra

Dr Phaneendra Andra | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Human and animal conflict has become rampant in rural areas due to dwindling prey base, habitat loss and poaching. And often, the only solution most people want is to kill an animal,” says Dr Phaneendra, who is also a Wildlife Veterinary Consultant with the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department. In the 13 years he has spent on the field, Dr Phaneendra has rescued crocodiles, bison, pythons, terrapin, pangolins and many species of birds in and around Atreyapuram. His clinic Paws N Claws is today a temporary shelter for two baby squirrels, one parakeet and one babbler – all presently undergoing treatment. “I know that their true place lies in their natural habitat. But, if even after treatment, they are unable to take care of themselves, they become my companion at home,” he says.  

Free range medicine

“It isn’t only about treating an animal or rescuing it. It is about understanding forest ecology and coming up with solutions,” says Dr Arun Zachariah, Chief Forest Veterinary Officer, based in Wayanad and an expert in free-ranging wildlife medicine. Free-ranging wildlife medicine involves designing and conducting field studies, collecting biological samples and disease surveillance.

With a PhD in wildlife medicine from the UK, Dr Arun says things have changed ever since he started working 20 years ago. “Those days, we had to rely largely on observation and experience. Today, the situation has changed. Though human-animal conflicts have increased, we are better equipped to deal with the challenges. We have evolved a way of dealing with conflict management. We train new people coming into the profession to understand the ecology of the forest, the study of animal genomics and above all, have a love for the wild,” he says.

A free-ranging wildlife veterinarian’s life is very different from that of a zoo veterinarian, Dr Arun points out. “There is nothing one can control in the wild. You don’t know the animal’s previous medical history. Everything is left to chance,” adds Dr Arun, who was attacked by a tiger on one of the rescue missions at Wayanad. The four year old tiger had been wounded, and charged at Dr Arun, pinning him down. “I pushed the tranquilising dart into the tiger’s mouth with all my strength and it worked,” he says.

“Only those tigers that are wounded or incapable of natural hunting stray into human habitations,” he says. Dr Arun has captured over 38 tigers, 180 leopards, and over a 100 elephants through darting. The captured tigers and leopards are taken to a rehabilitation centre he was instrumental in setting up in Wayanad in March 2022. “With zoos finding it difficult to take in these animals, there was a need to set up a space for them,” he says. The facility can currently accommodate eight tigers and six leopards. Once the animals recoup, they are reintroduced to the forest.

Reptilian tales

Dr Ruchika Lakshmanan, the veterinarian of Madras Crocodile Bank and Center for Herpetology in Chennai, is now familiar with the behavioural habits of her patients — crocodiles, snakes, Komodo dragons, iguana, turtles, tortoises and other critically endangered reptilian inhabitants of the bank.

“Mammals have expressive faces. Reptiles do not. So I could not read their expressions,” she says, about her initial days in the Crocodile Bank in November 2021. Luckily, she could rely on entire teams of people who spend their days with each animal and were familiar with their specific behavioral patterns — when they lay eggs, when they shed, how they grab their food and their walking patterns.

Dr Ruchika, who worked with zoo tigers in Chennai as a veterinary student, adapted her approach to the job in keeping with the Croc Bank’s modus operandi. She advises and aids preventive care as much as possible, so that her patients need the least possible direct intervention. “They are meant to live like wild animals. They are conditioned to take their feed, but that’s about it. Being approached by humans too often stresses them, so we don’t go near them unless there is an emergency,” she says.

However, when the time comes to treat an injured crocodile, it has to first be “captured” from its wide natural enclosure, in a process that takes 40 to 45 minutes and multiple strong, tactful hands. Dr Ruchika remembers a certain mugger with an injured eye who was surprisingly cooperative. “We could capture him in just 15 to 20 minutes. He let us treat him without hassle, too. I had to clean the wound, dress it and do everything I could in that one session, since you cannot call a crocodile for a fresh dressing change everyday. But within a week, the reptile was fine,” she recalls.

So would she consider that particular placid mugger her favourite? “I like salt water crocodiles and Nile crocodiles the most: for how large their bodies are, they still manage to move and run beautifully.”


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Printable version | Apr 29, 2022 11:58:59 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/world-veterinary-day-join-these-doctors-in-india-who-save-lives-in-the-wild/article65356116.ece