When a rare and expensive leafy sea dragon went into respiratory arrest at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the staff veterinarians had only moments to come up with a technique to resuscitate the fragile seahorse relative.
Inserting a piece of rubber tubing in the trumpetlike snout of the sea creature to pump water over the animal's gills, quick-thinking veterinarians used artificial respiration to revive the animal.
The pioneering procedure is just one of the many examples of how the Shedd Aquarium's 11-member veterinary services department keeps the aquarium's collection of nearly 8,000 aquatic animals and growing collection of terrestrial animals healthy. A new $1.5 million, state-of-the-art animal health care facility is helping to raise the level of care even higher, according to the staff.
In the past, most veterinary procedures at the aquarium were performed pool- or tank-side, with the veterinary services team working like an in-house ambulatory practice. Now, a 3,000-square-foot health care center, which is nearing completion, will serve as home base for the three veterinarians, three veterinary technicians, and one intern on the veterinary services team.
The first two phases of construction—which include the hospital, and pathology suite—are complete. The laboratory and offices are nearing completion.
"(Having a health care center) allows us to increase the efficiency of our operation and apply all these great tools," said Dr. Jeffrey R. Boehm, vice president of conservation and veterinary services at the Shedd Aquarium.
Veterinary services director Dr. Martin G. Greenwell said the health care center allows the staff to provide more comprehensive health care because equipment, such as ultrasound machines and radiographic equipment, are on hand in the center's examination room.
"We're able to offer a comprehensive approach to each case," said Dr. Greenwell, who, in addition to his role at the Shedd Aquarium, serves on the AVMA Steering Committee on Antimicrobial Resistance as a representative of the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine.
The veterinary services staff will make pool- and tank-side visits when it's determined that transporting the animal would be detrimental to its health.
"We still need to go there. It's often in their best interest," said Dr. Boehm, who serves on the AVMA Committee on the Human-Animal Bond as a representative of zoo/aquatic/wildlife medicine.
The veterinary staff will also continue to collaborate closely with the aquarists and animal care specialists who provide day-to-day care and training for the animals at the aquarium.
Part of offering a comprehensive approach to health care is focusing on preventive care, a tricky task at an aquarium where many of the species are not well understood.
"You may be working with an animal only two or three of your colleagues know about," Dr. Greenwell said.
"We're applying (advanced techniques) to new and novel species every day," Dr. Boehm said.
To provide the best quality care, staff members begin researching species before they arrive and continue to learn about them through regular examinations at the aquarium.
In anticipation of the arrival of a sawfish, a species that little is known about, a staff veterinarian has been gathering information from sawfish experts and other aquariums that have sawfish.
The new health care facility's radiographic equipment has proven useful in gathering baseline information on animals such as the seahorse, whose anatomy is not fully understood. Radiographs of healthy animals are kept on file and may provide useful comparative information if an animal later becomes ill, Dr. Greenwell said.
"Many of these animals have never been X-rayed," he said. "It's nice to have a baseline."
Unique facilities for unique needs
Like many zoos and aquariums, the Shedd Aquarium has expanded its collection over the past decade to include a wider array of species. New exhibits such as the "Amazon Rising: Seasons of the River" include many terrestrial species—birds, mammals, reptiles, and even insects.
"The nature of aquariums and zoos has changed over the last 10 years—all of us are displaying more holistic environments," Dr. Boehm said. "With that comes a whole host of challenges, opportunities, and needs."
To meet these varied needs, the veterinary services team has also grown to include specialists—a microbiologist, chemist, pathologists, and water quality technicians—plus human and veterinary specialists who are called in to help with difficult cases.
The hospital has several specialized areas to help serve the needs of the variety of species at the Shedd Aquarium and to provide appropriate work space for staff and visiting specialists.
It features a dry ward with cages similar to those at most small animal hospitals, where terrestrial species will be housed during treatment. There is also a wet ward where fish and other aquatic species can be cared for. The wet ward will feature tanks of various sizes where animals that are ill can be isolated for treatment or recovery, and where the staff water quality technicians can closely monitor water quality—a vital part of maintaining aquatic animal health.
A laboratory will provide work space for the microbiologist, chemist, and water quality technicians.
A sterile surgical suite also has been added to provide a suitable work space for the board-certified veterinary surgeons and human surgeons who often help with major surgeries. Previously, animals were transported to veterinary specialty hospitals or other facilities for major surgery.
"We wanted a true sterile surgical suite because we often bring in human surgeons as well as board-certified veterinary surgeons," Dr. Greenwell said. "We wanted to give them a facility that is safe, clean, and appropriate."
Collaboration with human and veterinary medical specialists is critical for maintaining the aquarium's diverse collection. For example, when the thick scales of a lungfish interfered with an ultrasound examination, the veterinary staff called upon a human ultrasonographer to help.
Veterinary pathologists from the University of Illinois also help maintain the aquarium's collection by providing diagnostic services and on site necropsies.
The new hospital boasts a separate pathology suite where two board-certified veterinary pathologists and three residents from the University of Illinois' zoologic pathology program perform diagnostic tests and conduct research on the pathogenesis of wildlife diseases.
Dr. Michael Kinsel, the director of the University of Illinois zoologic pathology program, said the pathology suite is providing a boost to the pathology program and is helping to increase the level of service that his team provides the aquarium.
"It has made things a lot easier for us," said Dr. Kinsel. "The better we work, the better we can serve our clientele."
An academic model
The new facilities also are bolstering the opportunities for teaching and research at the Shedd Aquarium.
Residents in the University of Illinois' three-year veterinary pathology program rotate between the aquarium, the Chicago Zoological Society's Brookfield Zoo, and Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens. Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine also provides support and space for the program.
After completing the program, the residents qualify to take the American College of Veterinary Pathologists' board certification examanination. So far, all the residents have gone on to earn board certification, according to Dr. Kinsel.
The aquarium also offers a one-year internship for a veterinary school graduate and four- to six-week externships for veterinary students.
Drs. Greenwell and Boehm see the aquarium's participation in the pathology program, and the veterinary externship and internship programs as a way to give something back to the profession and help expand the body of knowledge about aquatic animals.
"All of our work provides opportunities for research and training," said Dr. Boehm, who added that the aquarium also allows researchers to study its collections. "It's a nice contribution we can make."