We thought 5am wakeup was the end of the world. Then, we found out we had to roll out of bed at 4am on Tuesday. We almost rioted. But this is where my “Don’t be grumpy, its worth it” mantra came into full affect, we were going to get the special opportunity of participating in the first lion hysterectomy ever, as well as the first big cat operation with EcoLife. First, we helped with game captures at a picturesque location in the mountains. The owner of this reserve was the first female we saw, but her husband obviously had issues with that, he kept interjecting as if he was the smartest person on the ranch. Game capture is fun, but there is too much going on for us to get really involved so it’s not my favorite activity, but sitting in the bed of the truck and driving through the mountains was pretty awesome.
After the game capture we drove back to town and went to a location exhibiting a lot of predators (I hated this place and want to share these thoughts, but I know it is against Dr. John’s wishes to put them on blast so I will refrain from sharing the name). This location was equal parts disturbing and exciting. Every reserve we had been to so far consisted of the natural biome fenced in, whereas this place looked more like a zoo from the 90s. All the predators were pacing, a surefire sign of stress, the short fence lines of their enclosures. The placement of the exhibits were horrible, a jaguar (because South Africa is actually South America??) was placed next to a baboon, an ideal predator-pray relationship. And the animals were blatantly neglected, with feces piling up to unacceptable levels. Even so, animals should not bear the brunt of the faults of humans, so Dr. John has an obligation to care for the animals and we had a blast helping out. Today we only performed one operation, but it was dramatic enough. Dr. John darted a lioness, but she didn’t want to go down, so he had to give her more opioids. This resulted in a rapid drop in heart rate and breathing when she was on the table, so we needed to administer some antagonist to reduce the extent of anesthesia. We were able to keep operating, but at some point she started kicking and rolling over. She was waking up. So we had to jump back and give her more anesthesia to keep her from waking up. I don’t know what everyone else was thinking, but I was planning my escape route for the moment she jumped up and started attacking students. Fortunately, we didn’t get that far. The sedative kicked back in and we continued with the operation. It didn’t get hairy again until we finished surgery and were suturing closed the incisions. The lion started kicking its legs and Dr. John went into double suturing speed. When he finished closing the incisions, he walked off to get antibiotics and the antagonist and left us to carry the animal back into the enclosure. While we had her on the stretcher, she started quickly regaining consciousness and picking up her head. We all started bugging and ran with this lion waking up. The second we threw her in and removed her blind fold, we all jumped up and slammed the door shut. I put a timer on and it took another two and a half minutes until she was up and walking around again. That was close.
Fortunately, Wednesday’s surgeries were much more smooth, excluding a surprise emergency right when we arrived at this reserve again. We got to ‘sleep in’ until 7 am and then went back to the same facility to finish the job. When we arrived, we found out that one of the lion cubs was discovered to have detached the skin from its jaw. This was a really interesting surgery to watch because it’s not commonly seen and requires a lot of ingenuity. All of the skin was detached from the jaw, leaving only bone exposed, so Dr. John had rigged suture string between the teeth to provide an anchoring point for the skin to be able to reattach to the jaw. It was not a pretty sight and I am thankful the cub was anesthetized otherwise that surgery would have been another level of pain. After the emergency cub operation, we jumped right into the scheduled programming of hysterectomies. Yesterday’s lioness was healthily walking around and back to normal. Her daughter, the next patient, was well behaved for her procedure. Meaning, no lion CPR, no waking up mid surgery, everything went smoothly. This operation took a fraction of the time without worrying about being suddenly mauled to death. And then we moved onto the tiger patient. Typically, tigers are endemic to Asia only, so the owners imported these to add to their predator collection (a big no-no in the conservation world), so it was definitely for the better that we sterilized this tiger. Unless they’re in a zoo and bred specifically to increase genetic diversity, there is no need to increase populations in foreign habitats. This surgery went well too, but the tiger was covered in more ticks than I’ve ever seen leaching off a single animal before. There were so many that I had to swat them away from crawling on to me while I held a leg down. After the surgery, we coated her in frontline (the same tick medicine used for house cats, at a higher concentration) and hoped that would do the trick. I could go in depth about how disturbing this facility was, but Dr. John is working the angle that if he keeps building a positive relationship with the owners and developing management plans for them, the animals will be better off, so I can’t put them on blast.
The surgeries were a fun activity in a bad place and that was our last activity with Dr. John. Wednesday we got up early and head out right away, we had 4 hours of driving not including stopping for groceries or anything. Our time with Dr. John was amazing and I would love to intern with him while I’m in my later years of vet school. He is an intelligent and thoughtful person, and the level of calm and quick thinking he kept throughout the surgeries was admirable. He’s someone I want to study under when I’m preparing for my certification exams.