Appointment at the Ends of the World: Memoirs of a Wildlife Veterinarianby William B. Karesh
William B. Karesh is a globetrotting vet who makes house calls in exotic places. The founding director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Field Veterinary Program, Karesh shares some of his fascinating, and dangerous, encounters in the wild.
The New York Times Book Review
- Grand Central Publishing
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- 6.28(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.28(d)
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A Day at Work
I have this recurring image of crawling silently through tall, razor-edged grass in the blistering heat of the African equatorial sun. Loaded with a heavy backpack, I'm holding a rifle in my right hand as I inch forward on the hard, dry ground. Forty yards ahead is a herd of elephants, each animal weighing a few tons or more. A startled, shiny brown seven-foot-long cobra raises up on his forearm-thick body, flares his hood, and looks down at me for a minute before sliding effortlessly through the grass and out of view. The sea of vegetation blurs my vision as I try to figure out how close I am to becoming too close to an elephant. I'm trying to remain focused on my goalto hit one of the elephants with a tranquilizer dartrather than reflecting on how I got into this situation or if I'll be able to walk away afterward and see my friends and family again.
The images are not from my dreams; they come from my real worldmy job as a wildlife veterinarian. The work takes me to the remotest parts of the planet to encounter rare animals and live with unusual people for most of the year. During the few other months, I live in the Bronx. My office is at the famed Bronx Zoo. To smooth out the highs and lows of this roller-coaster life, I often think that I should buy a motorcycle. Not that I need a motorcycle, or even believe it's a particularly smart idea to have one in New York City. But I think that riding along next to New York taxi drivers would provide some of theexcitement and adrenaline rushes to which my job has addicted me. While the addiction is probably real, my joking about the risks could more accurately be described as denial or self-delusion.
You'd think New York City would be exciting and dangerous enough. However, everything is relative: in many ways New York City reminds me of the capital cities of most developing countriesbig and crowded, not too clean, and few people who speak English. On the positive side, these qualities definitely help reduce the culture shock when I get back from overseas.
When I'm not in the field, I'm usually in my office at the zoo, headquarters for my employer, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While I haven't treated any of the animals at the zoo for more than five years, the background I gained handling hundreds of exotic species over the years gave me the broad exposure, flexibility, and hands-on experience essential for the work I do now with wildlife around the world.
Although the job sounds romantic, it's not one that most people would enjoy. It's arduous, uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous. I don't get to sleep in my own bed nearly as much as I would like to. Most of my patients' homes are remote rain forests or deserts in undeveloped and politically unstable countries around the world. Most of my days are spent exposed to the elements, and many of my nights are spent sleeping on the wet ground in a strange place. There is a lot of risk involved in getting to the locations, living there, working, and leaving. Small planes and boats and long, hot hikes are a normal part of my commute to work.
Some of the animals I handle, like rhinos and buffalo, are quite dangerous. My patients are only one occupational hazard: venomous snakes, deadly tropical diseases like Ebola, and unpredictable humans (including heavily armed soldiers and guerrilla rebels) pose equal threats. In short, I'm grateful for employer-provided health and life insurance. A slightly warped sense of humor also may be essential for survival in my job.
The animals I care for are rare, their habitats are threatened, and extinction for many of the species is an ever-increasing possibility. The work I do is observed carefully by both the wildlife conservation community and government agencies are responsible for the animals. Mistakes with endangered species are not well tolerated, nor should they be. This fact infuses the work with constant performance pressure. Because of the inherent risks, what I do for a living is not fun, at least not while I'm doing it. It is probably enjoyable for those who get to watch, but unfortunately that's not my role.
My professional specialties include determining the health of wildlife populations and the safe handling of wild animals. A foreign government or overseas conservation organization may contact me or WCS and ask for assistance in determining if a wild penguin colony is healthy. Another request for help may require me to dart elephants to fit them with radio collars so park staff can monitor where the animals are spending their time. Private donations to WCS provide the support for this work, unless a government grant is underwriting the cost of the project. A small part of my time has to be devoted to helping in these fund-raising activities, either by speaking to selected groups or by helping to write grant proposals.
Every conservation organization fills a different niche. WCS's emphasis is on fieldwork and solid scientific research targeted at providing the information necessary to guide conservation planning. That's why I'm in the field most of the time. Projects in the early days often were conducted by dedicated individuals who sacrificed years of their lives in remote parts of the world to enhance our understanding of a species. In more recent times the pressures on wild places have grown more severe and more complicated. Most of our projects are now developed and led by foreign nationalsdedicated people we have found and supported to protect their country's wildlife. The work now demands teams of people from a variety of disciplines such as botany, anthropology, and economics, all working together. This is where I, as a wildlife veterinarian, fit in.
All of our projects focus on wild animals and wild places. We often work in conjunction with indigenous people and local governments looking for ways to protect their futures. The future of wildlife and that of humans does not have to be antithetical. Some people advocate that humans come first and that wildlife should pay its own way to survive. They accuse conservation groups like WCS of caring more about animals than people. I find that ridiculous. We care about wildlife just as we care about people and the quality of life. We may try to protect a vast tract of forest from being destroyed by a lumber concession in a developing country. That same forest is not only home to millions of living organisms, but also the watershed area that provides clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. A few rich and powerful individuals may profit tremendously from logging the area and obtaining the huge construction contract to build a water purification plant to replace the lost clean water, but the true long-term costs to the majority of the people of the country are often ignored in these projects.
I cannot accept the argument that conservation puts animals before people. I'm not sure that distinctions between us are even that relevant. We humans have more in common with other animals than we are often willing to admit, and the differences between us are far fewer than most people think. Many of our needs to survive in the future are similar. To plan for that future, we need to understand as much as we can about species and our interactions with them on this planet we share.
This concept probably led to WCS's decision to develop a medical or health component to its conservation efforts. In 1989 WCS hired me to develop a "Field Veterinary Program"the first of its kind. The general director, Dr. William Conway, and Dr. Emil Dolensek, who was chief zoo veterinarian at the time, had decided that WCS's vast number of field projects needed the dedicated services of a veterinarian. They wanted someone to provide medical expertise to biologists and wildlife managers working around the world. This novel concept quickly took root within the conservation community.
Now the Field Veterinary Program not only provides health care services to our own projects, but also helps with the conservation efforts of other organizations and government agencies around the world. Most often my services are free because the price is based on the ability to pay. Since we are in the business of conservation, the "bottom line" is our impact, what we call "conservation product," not profit.
Of course, I never realized working with wildlife would be so complicated. From the time I raised my first raccoon, I hoped to grow up and work with wild animals. The one-street neighborhood where I lived was wedged between a lake and the wide saltwater marsh of the Ashley River in Charleston, South Carolina. A fascination with the unknown captured me at an early age, and my childhood days were spent exploring the marsh and the nearby woods. I remember building a "submersible sample collecting vehicle" out of scrap lumber, some broken roller-skate wheels, and plastic test tubes when I was seven years old. It looked remarkably like the Mars Rover deployed in 1997 by NASA and had the same problem of getting stuck on rocks. My vehicle, however, had to be pulled along by a rope, and I built it with about $2 worth of materials. I would drag it across the bottom of the lake and pretend to be a scientist obtaining deepwater and sediment samples.
Every spring I brought home orphaned baby blue jays, squirrels, and raccoons to raise and release when they were old enough to take care of themselves. In those days my interest must have been an unusual one. The local newspaper featured me with my first blue jays, Pete and Gypsy, when I was seven years old. My mother, an artist, was exceedingly tolerant of my endeavors and would make sure all my animals were properly fed and cared for every day when I went off on my bicycle to elementary school.
When they were babies, the animals slept in a laundry basket or cardboard box in my bedroom. As they got a little older they found their own favorite places to sleep. They liked my closet and my bed in particular. Most of them developed mischievous habits: the raccoons opened and climbed through our refrigerator; Pete flew around the house with stolen cigarettes from my father's pack, then landed on the back of the living room sofa, broke the cigarettes into bits, and ate the tobacco.
When the animals were old enough to spend the night outside, I designed and built cages in our backyard that incorporated bushes and trees to simulate their natural habitats. By summertime, the kids were old enough to live on their own. I used the "soft release" approach now used for many wildlife reintroduction programs. My racoons, squirrels, and blue jays were free to leave their cages and pens, but the doors were left open and food was available if they wanted to return. Most stayed close by for a few weeks, then began venturing off for longer periods of time between visits, Eventually most returned to the wilds of the neighborhood, but at least one raccoon returned with a female friend at the onset of the following winters. Ducklings, dogs, and horses filled the intervening days when I didn't have my wild charges.
Our local veterinarian in Charleston, Dr. Horres, was always considerate in helping with my injured and orphaned pets. I admired his way with animals; he handled the baby squirrels so gently. Before examining or treating them, he always explained that he had not been trained in veterinary school to deal with wild animals. I always remembered that: as a result, my childhood dreams to work with wildlife never included becoming a veterinarian.
I was, however, fascinated by Jim Fowler's job on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom television show. I especially liked the episode on which Marlin Perkins says, "Now Jim will jump from the helicopter and catch the twenty-foot-long anaconda." Jim leapt from the hovering chopper into the Venezuelan swamp and disappeared under the churning muddy water a couple of times with the giant snake wrapped around him, finally wrestling the anaconda into submission. I didn't know why he needed to catch the anaconda, but I knew I wanted Jim's job.
Because I was only seven or eight years old at the time, grownups just smiled indulgently whenever I mentioned my career goal. Jobs like that existed only on television, and no one encouraged me to pursue my fantasy. By the time I was in my late teens, family and peer pressure had convinced me to prepare for a "good" job in law or medicine or maybe take over my father's men's clothing store, where I spent my afternoons working from the time I was twelve. The retail trade did teach me three useful skills. The first was how to help people feel good about themselves and make decisions with which they feel comfortable. The second was that quality of service is as important as any material benefits you can offer people. And the third came from a story one of the older salesmen told me.
Old Mr. Taylor was a legendary figure in the local men's clothing business. He commonly hired recent graduates from the nearby College of Charleston to help them get started in life. One day near closing time, Mr. Taylor handed a push broom to one of these graduates and asked him to sweep the sales floor. Aghast, the young man said, "But sir, I'm a college graduate." The elderly gentleman reached for the broom and replied sincerely, "Oh, I'm sorry, let me show you how." His ability to use humor to change someone's behavior was a good lesson. Just as important, I learned that when the time came to get a job done, people trained by the school of life frequently have more to offer than those with brilliant academic credentials.
And how does the men's clothing business fit in with wildlife conservation? As in all veterinary work, the animals are only part of the challenge. Influencing people to make changes that will help the animals is critical if conservationists are going to succeed. Many of my colleagues in veterinary medicine and biology got into their fields because they didn't like working with people. Unfortunately, the reality of helping animals and conserving habitat is as much about working with people as it is about treating animals and protecting wild places. Good science and good medicine by themselves are not enough to effect change. And though they are not usually taught in many academic programs, good social skills with human animals are critical.
Whether I like it or not, no one had a greater influence on me than my father. For years he could not comprehend what I was doing with wild animals. Like many of his generation, he could not see how my concern for wildlife and wild places would give me a comfortable lifestyle or contribute to the good of "normal" people. In his eighties he finally came to understand that I shared his commitment to making the community a better place and recognized that I had defined my community as the planet we all share.
Last year, while I was working with flamingos high in the Andes of Chile, I got a message from my sister Barbara. I had a satellite telephone with mea gift from a WCS donor who was concerned about my traveling while my father was in the hospital. Over the satellite phone, Barbara told me to get to Charleston as fast as I could. I made it to my father's bedside in a little over twenty-four hours. He had held on patiently to let me know that he was deeply proud of what I was doing in this world. He passed away the next day.
My father was a workaholic (it runs in the family), but the magnitude of his dedication to family, friends, associates, and the Charleston community struck me when I saw the hundreds and hundreds of people who attended his funeral. Everyone there had been somehow touched by his compassion and dedication. I realized that although he'd had little money for most of his life, he was rich in friendships and a sense of purpose. These goals for living were part of my inheritance.
But the road to adulthood was twisted. At age eighteen I knew that my desire to work with animals did not qualify even as an acceptable pipe dream. So I went off to college at the University of South Carolina and majored in business, with the intention of going to law school or running the family business. I switched to engineering, thinking that architecture was the direction for me to go since my artistic mother had given me an added compulsion for creativity, but I didn't like working indoors hunched over a drafting table. By the time I switched majors for the third time in less than two years, and then failed the introductory course in art for elementary education, I was clearly confused, though not very concerned about where I was headed.
When I was twenty and back from college for a weekend, I finally got some good advice. Phyllis Cohen, the mother of one of my best friends, caught us coming home about three o'clock one morning. She sat me down and demanded, "What the hell are you doing?" Clearly she wasn't asking about our staying out late. Her bluntness sobered me up. I admitted that I had no idea. She remembered how happy I was working with animals and wanted to know why I didn't pursue that real interest. I hadn't thought of that type of job since childhood. A light went on.
Coincidentally, two of my college friends, Margaret and Jane, were considering transferring to Clemson University to pursue their own career dreams. It was perfect timing. With a renewed sense of purpose I drove upstate with them to see the university and to meet the faculty in the Department of Zoology.
The department head, Dr. Sid Gautreau, and I hit it off right away. He was a big, enthusiastic Cajun who had used radar to discover that small birds were migrating at night across the Gulf of Mexico by choosing altitudes that provided the strongest tailwinds. Previously, ornithologists believed that birds had to travel along the Mexican coast, stopping to rest every day. Sid is still doing amazing work with bird migrations and has recently been using modern color doppler weather radar to determine their speeds and directions.
Sid told me that he had found a job doing what he loved. I knew then that I had found a mentor. That same summer, Margaret, Jane, and I made the move to Clemson and spent our last years in college getting an education that coincided with our passions. They also cleaned up my life by getting me to quit smoking, take up vegetarianism, hiking, biking, and running, and get serious about yoga. Since then I've really stuck only with the outdoor activities, but we all got on the track to where we wanted to be. With the help of great teachers and a sense of purpose, I managed to get a degree in biology with an emphasis in the study of animal behavior and ecology.
After graduation in 1977, I got a zookeeper job at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I still had not considered going to veterinary school; instead I was hoping to work at the zoo while going to graduate school for a Ph.D. in biology or ecology. The zoo provided me with my first exposure (outside of horseback riding) to working with large and dangerous animals. I was trained by a short, skinny keeper named Al who was due for retirement. Or so zoo managers hoped. Al was amazingly good with the animals, but he had no interest at all in rules and policies. Since the National Zoo was a federal institution, Al's attitude did not fit wellhe ruffled a lot of feathers.
Al's love was taking care of the elephants. The elephants usually did anything Al asked of them, and he worked with them as if they were huge puppies. They would let him work around their feet or put his hand in their mouths and never tried to hurt him. One afternoon, however, an elephant got out of line and Al casually hit the top of his head with a bottle to get his attention. I'm sure the elephant felt it, but given his massively thick skull, I doubt if the bottle hurt the four-thousand-pound beast. Unfortunately, the bottle broke. A zoo visitor witnessed the incident and filed a complaint. Zoo managers reassigned Al, denying him the chance to ever be close to an elephant againthe main reason he got up every morning and went to work.
When I started a month later, I found myself working with Al in the large hoofstock area. He walked casually into a small pen with a four-hundred-pound scimitar horned oryx that could have gored him with one of his three-foot-long horns. Al slowly and carefully raked out the pen around the animal. Then he turned to me and said, "You do the next one, just don't startle him." Soon Al had me calmly but cautiously going in pens with a variety of animals that could have easily killed me. A mix of naïveté and testosterone poisoning prompted me to believe that Al had shown me most of the tricks of the trade. All was fine until the day a zoo manager spotted me in a wildebeest pen and started screaming at me to get out before I was killed. The yelling made the wildebeest go nuts, and he almost gored me before I managed to escape the little fifteen-foot pen I had been cleaning. I learned that it's much safer to do dangerous things without negative people nearby.
On another afternoon I was raking out a quarter-acre, wooded, sable antelope pen along Connecticut Avenue when the big bull sable decided to charge me. He weighed close to a thousand pounds, stood about seven feet tall, and had ebony four-foot-long horns arching back over his head. Al had told me always to watch out for the male. He warned, "Whatever you do, don't run away."
I grabbed my flimsy leaf rake with two hands and ran straight at the charging bull antelope. He stopped in his tracks, and I went back to raking up the fecal pellets around the feed trough. That afternoon old Al laughed and his eyes sparkled as I told him the story over grilled-cheese sandwiches at the soda fountain across the street from the zoo. Working as a zookeeper, I learned a lot about reading animals and about people.
Meet the Author
Dr. Karesh is trained in behavorial ecology and veterinary medicine, and has worked at the San Diego Zoo and the Seattle Zoo. With more than sixty scientific articles under his belt, he is an internationally recognized authority in his fields.
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