Life at the zoo

My surroundings are more tropical once again! Dr. Golf, the exotics pet who used to work at the zoo is now driving me to the South, to Chonburi. For the next month, I will be working and living in the Khao Kheow (“Green Mountain”) Open Zoo, doing my placement in the zoo’s wildlife hospital. As a student, I won’t be allowed to do a lot on my own, as the animals are not as used to human contacs as pets and can thus be dangerous, and because about these exotic species, less data exists, and the vets themselves have to improvise and experiment a lot. But I’m going to see so many different species!
“Are yo scared of the way I’m driving?” Dr. Golf asks after only ten minutes, but I’d be more afraid if I had to drive by myself. We start comparing everything connected to driving in Germany and Thailand. While in Germany, we all have to go to driving school (a costly venture) before taking the test, in Thailand you can do so, or your parents can teach you, or someone else.
“But everybody has to take a test to get the license?” I want to make sure.
“Well, in some regions” – Dr. Golf rethinks – “yes, everybody should take a test.”
Around us: Palm trees. The sea is close. The air is much better than in Bangkok, it’s a little bit warmer and more humid. 

The Open Zoo is a giant park, where people dive a car, scooter, or tour bus from one animal enclosure to the next, or in some cases, a golf cart. Near the entrance, vegetables and fruits are sold to feed to almost all the animals, and on the parking lot across the street, one busload of sunburnt, bored looking Russians after the other is loaded into the zoos trams. These groups find themselves in front of the giraffes, elephants or rhinoceroses, feeding them and drinking beer.
The enclosures are quite spacious, and often shared by species that would share a habitat in nature as well. As someone with more or less fixed working hours and no vehicle, my opportunities to see the animals as a visitor are quite limited. The closest are the elephants, and when I visit them after work, I take my torch for the way home. Surprisingly, the pachyderms are not obese, despite being fed by the visitors with bananas, fresh grass and so on all day. At night, they are chained to poles and show stereotypic behavior (less of a surprise). But all in all, I like the enclosures, one that the visitors can overlook entirely, and two even bigger ones that the people can’t see, so the elephants have the space just for themselves. 
eld's deer on his way to the ambulance
this little one broke in...
In the evening, when the visitors are leaving, wildlife is taking over. Deer and macaques live in the zoo without being part of the zoo, and they regularly break into the enclosures and steal food.
I live at the end of a street on the foot of a mountain behind the employees’ houses. Not far from the wildlife clinic, a village starts on the edge of the zoo compounds – the staff even has their own soccer field. Most of the employees live inside the zoo, including Dr. Fon, the vet who often takes me with her to work in the morning, and the woman who makes me lunch every day – getting food in here without a scooter or car is hard enough, as a vegan even more so, but she enjoys filling my lunch box with a new delicious creation every day. At the moment, I’m alone in “my” house that has four beds for foreign students, two bathrooms, and an unequipped kitchen (fridge, kettle and sink are there, that is). The Thai students, who are required to do this placement in groups of four, need to take care of housing and transportation themselves, and live outside the zoo compound. As the street bends between my neighbor and my house, I literally live surrounded only by jungle. 

Insects are chirring, monkeys screaming and jumping on my roof, geckos make their weird sounds, birds are singing all around me. The downside of living in this wilderness (aprt from the ants everywhere): I constantly have to ask someone to drive me to town so that I can buy some fresh fruit and other food, and after heavy rains I have almost no electricity. But that’s a small sacrifice for being surrounded by nature, and having this peace and quiet! Besides, it’s just awesome to ride to town “three girls on a motorbike”-style!
Of course, the beginning is hard for me in the hospital. I can’t read all of the labels on boxes and bottles, I don’t understand what’s going on until somebody translates and with most people, my work is on a trial-and-error-basis, the communication consist only of “yes” and “no” (mostly “no”). But with time, I remember what’s inside which container, what I need to pack for rounds in the morning, how to fill out the forms for the anesthesia monitoring and the blood work, and how to prepare the syringes for the blow darts. I climb into our “wildlife ambulance” and let them surprise me which animal we’re visiting. 

kangaroo in surgery
Phillip T. Robinson gives a detailed description of our daily challenges in his book “Life at the Zoo”, which I want to recommend here to everyone interested. Normally, the first thing is to assess a patient’s health status and weight by examining it, and then to decide whether he needs surgery and if he is suited for anesthesia. In a zoo, the patients don’t allow you this – most of them need to be in anesthesia to actually be examined. This bears many risks of course. So we have to estimate the weight – and blow or shoot a dart with an immobilizing agent, before getting closer with our blood drawing equipment of the scissors to trim the tiger’s claws. And while the vets and their assistants saw off a deer’s antlers, treat wounds and fractures in monkeys, we students have quite the responsibility, too: to monitor respiratory and heart rate, oxygen saturation and temperature of the patient. If something changes, we have to make sure that the correct measurements are taken: cool him down or warm him up, give more of the anesthetizing agent, and so on.
And the staff expects us to do this without telling us to.

a langur in his hospital box
Our mornings are often chaotic and hectic, preparing the medication for the patients in our ward and those in their own homes (who had to be darted again and who can get his meds with a normal syringe?), when suddenly we have to jump into the van with the equipment we might need, because a deer has been injured, a puma won’t eat; or we have to hold the door open and get the stethoscopes ready for five kangaroos that have escaped from their enclosures and need a full check-up now. When it comes to dangerous animals like the big cats, students are not allowed inside, even during the anesthesia. We wait behind heavy bars and only count the breaths per minute.
The afternoons, after a one hour break that starts strictly at twelve o’clock, are slower, we have time to clean up the morning’s mess, feed the sulcate tortoise with the gastric tube, and take care of the animal babies that are brought here.
As the Khao Kheow Open Zoo runs a research project on eld’s deer, we get to see hormone treatments for superovulation on them – and a few days later they put them under and surgically extract the cells from the ovaries to fertilize them in vitro.
And then, there are the necropsies, of course. Every animal that dies in a zoo is examined post mortem. It helps the vet to collect more data on what is normal, in addition to finding the cause of death. So almost every other day we get to see (and help out) the deer that died from blood loss after a femur fracture, the wallaby with peritonitis, the banteng calf that had a severe hernia…
And life at the zoo continues.

Phillip T. Robinson
Life at the zoo - behind the scenes with the animal doctors
paperback, 320 pages

buy it here


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