In a metal outdoor stall adjacent to her enclosure, the 5,000 pound, 53-year-old Southern white rhino Macite bumps her big prehistoric head lightly against the bars. The horn at the end of her nose looks like an ancient relic, but she scrapes her giant flat feet in the dust just like a cow shuffling in a pen on a hot day.
Around Macite’s enormous backside, veterinarian Bob MacLean uses a hand brush and a gel to clean, disinfect and pack the chronic pressure sores (similar to human bedsores) on the elderly rhino’s back legs. She’s thought to be the oldest living female of her kind, and MacLean’s team is doing its best to keep the sores from growing. It’s part of a litany of tasks large and small that make up his role as senior veterinarian for the Audubon Nature Institute.
“We’re trying to keep it from going systemic,” he says, as he finishes rinsing the sore. “We’re treating her every day.”
MacLean — a tall, cheerful man in a navy Audubon scrub top, glasses and baseball cap — didn’t start out as caretaker to rhinos and elephants. He spent the early part of his career working in the cattle biotech industry, working on in vitro fertilization and cloning projects. When he went to veterinary school, he began studying what are called "exotics" in vet lingo, leading to studies at a New York small animal center, work on a white-tailed deer surgical sterilization project in Highland Park, Illinois and a three-year zoological residency. He landed at Audubon when the organization was hiring to replace a departing veterinarian after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods.
It’s a big job. With another veterinarian, he’s currently responsible for the Audubon Zoo, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. In addition to providing medical and preventative care for mammals, reptiles, birds and fish, Audubon’s veterinarians help monitor pregnant animals and develop and adjust the animals’ diets. They’re called on to know, for instance, that gorillas are prone to heart disease in captivity, possibly because it’s tough to duplicate the quantity and type of foliage they’d eat in the wild. And when an animal that’s large of tooth and claw undergoes anesthesia, MacLean says the vet is responsible for the safety of any staff who are present.
On a sunny, not-too-hot August morning, MacLean and I set out toward the rhino enclosure in a golf cart, the preferred method of transit for zoo employees. We pass a shiny blue peacock ambling along the the dusty trail. When we arrive, he and his team begin cleaning Macite’s sores, and keeper Katie Christiensen tells me how this treatment isn’t the only routine the rhinos are accustomed to. At the end of the day, when they sense it’s dinnertime, they lumber up to the entry to their interior stalls.
“The majority of animals in our department, that’s their plan : ‘Will work for food,’” she says.
Though MacLean treats all the animals, he says there’s a lot of collaboration between Audubon’s veterinary staff and outside professionals. It’s very common for zoo veterinarians to call experts in different species; MacLean often shares bird expertise in his role as Species Survival Plan veterinary advisor for endangered cranes. But the zoo also consults with outside surgical staff, such as MedVet Medical Care and Cancer Centers for Pets. Other organizations share orthopedic equipment, which helps address the enormous diversity in size when operating on animals. Audubon has even occasionally borrowed imaging equipment, such as a CT scanner, from regional hospitals; shared resources help expedite care when animals are ill.
“Hey, if someone else can do a root canal in half the time that I can do a root canal, I’d rather have them do it,” he explains.
Later, we return to the zoo’s Animal Hospital Treatment Room so MacLean can look at two flamingos. In the room, there’s an enormous scale, an X-ray area, and an exam table, where instruments both familiar (surgical swabs, syringes) and unusual (epoxy) address creature ailments. There’s also a mobile anesthesia cart on a hand truck, which can be rolled out to to enclosures for minor procedures. MacLean says anesthesia is one of the biggest concerns when dealing with animals — it’s better for them to spend as little time “under” as possible.
A downy gray flamingo chick arrives on the examination table, with a splinted wing and a bloody mass on its foot from the mosquito-transmitted avian pox virus. Though the bird weighs less than four pounds, three people stand around the table, gently clutching his spindly legs or swaddling him in a towel as he opens and closes his mouth, his neck making shapes like a bendy straw in the air. The team clips open the splint made of tongue depressors, cast padding and a wrap, freeing a wet-looking but mostly-healed wing.
The chick is cleared for temporary release and monitoring, and a short while later another flamingo is brought in — an adult the color of watermelon gum, with a honking call like a stopped-up tuba. This flamingo has a prosthetic beak, after a run-in with a snapping turtle or alligator (they aren’t sure which).
“[Flamingos are] filter feeders; if he can’t seal his beak he can’t push the water out to get the food, so we put the prosthetic on,” MacLean explained to me earlier. “It’s not an elegant solution, it doesn’t look perfect, but it’s functional.”
Again, the staff crowds around the table, cradling the delicate bird as MacLean inspects the artificial lower beak they’ve created from pins and epoxy under an overhead lamp. The flamingo stares at MacLean with a baleful yellow eye, then lets out another honk.
“I know, I know, I know,” he soothes. “Shhh.”
Gambit’s new "On the Clock" series takes a look at the workday of a New Orleanian with an unconventional job. Have an interesting job, or know someone who does? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with tips.