Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Animal House: Holes in birds, stalking the wild ass and other tales from the NAVC

I have just returned from Orlando, Fla., where I was attending the North American Veterinary Conference. The conference is one of the big veterinary gatherings in the United States, and as you can imagine A) has nothing to do with Chinese translation and B) is totally zany.

My job was to report on the various sessions and to make contacts in the veterinary world.

The main focus of the conference is the "scientific programs," which are various classes and lectures for vets to get continuing education credit and learn from some experts in their field. As a non-veterinarian, I found some of the talks absolutely mystifying, and others were really interesting or gross, while some were just hilarious.

I found that one big difference between veterinarians and laypeople (me) is in viewing pictures of animals. For instance, when shown pictures of open wounds and dead animals in various stages of being necropsied (the animal version of an autopsy), the vets will nod and be interested, while I am trying to suppress a gag reflex. But when shown cute animal pictures of fluffy kitties and puppies in silly situations, they all go: "Aaaawwwwww!" meanwhile I am rolling my eyes.

Animal exotica
One of the subjects I explored while at the conference was the world of "exotics," which includes birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals like ferrets. I took one class called "Shell repair in Chelonians," which was presented by Dr. Greg Fleming, a veterinarian with Disney World. A chelonian is a turtle or tortoise, and Fleming said people often bring in the animals to his clinic after they (the chelonians) have been run over by cars.

Triage is the first step. If the spine has been broken he said there is little hope. Turtles have a strange, primordial nervous system, and their back legs will continue to move reflexively without a connection to the spinal cord. However their quality of life would be pretty low and he just euthanizes them.

"Basically those guys are toast," were his exact words.

But surprisingly, even if large pieces of the shell have been broken or cracked off, he can still repair many of them. You are probably thinking "epoxy" right now, but that just seals in any infection. The trick is to drill screws into the shell and wire the pieces together. Flushing out the wounds is also important for the first week or so, but make sure the animals are positioned correctly.

"You kind of have to hold the dude upside down," the Alberta, Canada, native said.

The avian programs were also pretty cool. "Case Study: The Screaming Parrot" was a tempting selection, but I passed it up (another one I skipped was "The Vomiting Cat"), and instead went to the bizarre and intriguingly titled "There is a Hole in my Bird."

Basically this class was about birds who pluck out their own feathers. The interesting thing is, I go to these classes thinking people know everything about the subject. And while they might know the most of anyone about something, the actual body of knowledge on the subject has as many holes as the self-plucking bird. That is not a criticism of the doctors, it is just that there is tons we don’t know, especially about animal behavior.

"Feather destructive behavior" is different from "feather picking," but essentially they are both pretty common problems with pet birds. Why do they do it? Nobody knows for sure! But Dr. Natalie Antinoff (who was a great presenter) had some good ideas. One reason could be that the bird is nuts. They are smart and live really long lives - in small cages - hence they occasionally go insane. Another possible reason is disease. She talked about one bird who picked out all of these feathers on one part of its body for no apparent reason. But when it finally died she did a necropsy and found a huge testicular tumor, which was located right around the site of the picking.

Yeah, there were pictures of that. Giant testicular tumors in a splayed out bloody parrot -- not pretty. But other birds plucked themselves in a certain area and it turned out they had some medical issue internally right under where they were picking.

Stress is another cause. Take the case of Forbes, a 20-year-old African Grey. After Forbes' owner moved the bird from his original place in the house, Forbes started freaking out and plucked himself bare. Then one of the veterinary technicians was bird-sitting for him, and pointed out that there was a giant statue of an eagle sitting right outside Forbes' window! The owner took away the statue and the bird stopped picking since it was no longer crapping itself in fear every day.

That case was a demonstration of why, as Dr. Antinoff said, "I don't reach for the Prozac with every single bird." (She was talking about giving it to the bird.)

Some people think it is due to allergies (don't give them benadryl though because "histamine is not the allergic mediator in birds" – nobody knows what is), but it could also just be a weird habit, like people biting their nails. The problem is that their "flock" is a couple of humans who don't know anything about them except they are cute and fun.

"There are things we can't teach them, because we don't have beaks," she said.

Wild-ass beasts
The place I work for only deals with companion animals, but I just could not pass up this class: "Capturing and collaring the Asiatic Wild Ass."

The presenter was an Austrian I believe, and he was talking about his adventures in Mongolia and parts of Asia and the Middle East trying to capture these endangered wild asses (they look like donkeys) and put satellite collars on them. He must have said "wild ass" like 15 times in the first 3 minutes, and of course being fairly immature I was holding back snickers. But he said it like it was an adjective, like you might say "that was a wild-ass party last night." However, he started showing amazing pictures of the central Asian steppe and I was entranced. Although I did kind of chuckle at one picture, which he described thusly: "that's obviously a male."

He said the job is not very glamorous and not everyone should attempt it. Lots of mosquitoes and lots of waiting around for the animals to show up. It still sounded really cool, though. He talked about how he created a remote control tranquilizer gun using parts out of a video supply catalog, a Sony watchman, a CO2 rifle and the automatic door-lock mechanism from a BMW (used to activate the trigger).

"It's surprising, actually, what you can bring into other countries and no one notices," he said.

Some of the risks are pretty gnarly (the worst thing is having vehicle problems), and you should always have a backup plan when stalking wild ass. In addition to cars or planes breaking down, injury and illness, some of the governments are also kind of unstable. At one point he said: "When you hear your name on Iranian radio, you know things have gone badly wrong."

There are other hazards, too. This guy wrote a paper called “Human Exposure to Wildlife Capture Drugs.” Oh, and when the wild ass is in the initial stages of sedation it starts pacing all over the place, so you are supposed to stand in front of it and when it rams into you, you “grab the ears and thrown them down.” Don’t worry it is perfectly safe. For the wild ass, that is.

Good times

I wound up writing about an economic symposium and also a series of talks on animal forensics, which was awesome. For that I got to interview Dr. Melinda Merck, the ASPCA veterinarian who brought down Michael Vick by proving the various terrible ways his fighting dogs were killed. I also interviewed one of the 13 forensic entomologists in the country, Dr. Jason Byrd.

Basically forensic entomology is using information about insects to figure out how long a body has been decomposing for. This guy was cool. I asked him how he got into the field and he said that he had two interests in life: forensic science and entomology, and he was able to study them together and voila. His great quote was: "A carcass is the singles bar of the fly world." Not only were there pictures of dead animals in his presentation, we also got to see human bodies in various stages of decomposition and being eaten by bugs.

Later, when I asked him about how he got into animal forensics, he said that although people in the field of human forensic science don't grow callous to the crimes they study, they do become somewhat desensitized to the human bodies they see. But people hurting animals is a different story, and when he was approached by Dr. Merck he wanted to help.

"We don't have some of the minimum defense mechanisms when we hear about animal cruelty," he said. "Some cases really shocked me."

Oh, I almost forgot! I went to Downtown Disney, the free part of Disney World, and I ran in a 5K! I figured I should use my increased blood oxygen levels (from living in Denver) and try to beat my previous 5K record. I did it, finishing in under 30 minutes! It was not hard to beat my previous time, which was in 2000, with Columbia friend and "innerer Schweinehund" blogger Brian Morrissey. I was about 50 pounds heavier, hung over and had gotten about 3 hours of sleep after a wild night in Hoboken, N.J.

OK, there it is: the whole experience in a nutshell. Next time I will head to the AAHA conference in Phoenix in March. Stay tuned for more veterinary madness!


Susan said...

I liked the quotes--and I can see why you wanted to blog about this, stuff you couldn't say in your official articles. Any down side to blogging about this? Should you clear quotes? Or is it all on the record?
Anyway I laughed outloud, this is good stuff. I have to say I changed channels every time Micheal Vick's name was mentioned. And want to know nothing about mistreated animals. The wi;d-ass wild asses was great and I liked "If you hear your name on I----n radio..."

Ben Moger-Williams said...

Thanks Mom!
I think it is all on the record. I mean there were over 100 media reps there so anything goes. I purposely left out the name of the wild-ass guy because I didn't want to cause him any trouble, seeing as the Iranian authorities are part of my core readership.
Blogging on the side of reporting is kind of a grey area, but I think it is OK here!

Matthew said...

dude, I was TOTALLY thinking "epoxy," way to call me out on that. very interesting read. I'm still waiting on the murder-mystery writeup, though.

Vince said...

That was quite an experience! This is one of the funniest blogs from you.

Are you in Phoenix in March?

Siew Gin said...

This article is hilarious!! Very good quotes.. !!