From sharks to chimps to moon bears: fables of a supervet

Romain Pizzi, the vet who pioneered keyhole surgery for animals, has operated on sharks, chimps even a moon bear

In 2012, the conservation donation Free the Bears approached Romain Pizzi, one of the most innovative wildlife surgeons in Europe, with an unexpected case. A specialist in laparoscopic( keyhole) surgery- until recently rare in veterinary medicine- Pizzi has operated on giraffes and tarantulas, penguins and baboons, giant tortoises and at least one shark, and maintains a honour for taking on cases others won’t. If you’re in owned of a tiger with gallstones, or a suspiciously sickly beaver, you call Pizzi. As Matt Hunt, CEO of Free the Bears says,” We have other veterinarians who are incredibly talented. But Romain is one of different kinds .”

The patient in question was a three-year-old female Asiatic black allow, also known as a moon bring, announced Champa. Moon produces, poached for their bile and bodyparts, are classified as susceptible by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rescued as a cub and brought to a Free the Bears sanctuary in Laos, Champa had a deformed skull and impaired imagination. While other abides would socialise, she would mope around her pen, foreman down, seemingly in agony. Pizzi suspected “shes had” hydrocephalus, a rare statu in which extravagance cerebrospinal liquor is an increase in the skull, justification brain damage.

Catching a red-eye: Romain Pizzi is based in Edinburgh where he considers rockhopper penguins, but flies around the world for operations. Picture: Tim Flach

” Anywhere else in the world, the recommendation would then have euthanise her ,” Hunt says. But in Laos, which has a Buddhist tradition and strict protection principles influenced in part as a response to the bear-bile swap, euthanasia is veto. So Hunt questioned Pizzi for an alternative answer.” We started talking about the possibility of surgery ,” Hunt says.

Veterinary surgeons operate under unique limitations. There’s scale: it’s hard to fit an elephant in an MRI machine. There’s temperament: you don’t want a tiger to wake up on the operating table. And there are financial influences. A cutting-edge surgery on a domestic domesticated can expense tens of thousands of pounds. By distinguish, wildlife kindness can be forced to function on small budgets. And surgeries are often performed in the field, at sanctuaries and wildlife reservations with few of the average zoo indulgences, such as sterile theaters and reliable electricity.

In Champa’s case, even strengthening the diagnosis proved impossible.” There’s no money in Laos ,” Pizzi says.” There’s no MRI scanner in the whole country. They don’t even do the operation on humans .” The nearest human infirmary refused to admit service animals for an x-ray. What’s more , no veterinary had ever attempted to perform intelligence surgery on a abide before. Pizzi went on undeterred. Without an MRI, visualising Champa’s brain in advance was challenging. So he contacted the National Museum of Scotland, which keeps an archive of mammal skeletons for science studies, and acquired the skull of a young female moon birth, which he x-rayed to help create a digital replication- a kind of delineate.” You find another way ,” he says.

Bearing up: Champa the moon bear’s intelligence surgery. Image: Matt Hunt/ Free The Bears

Before long, Pizzi turned to Jonathan Cracknell, a veterinary anaesthetist and regular traitor, to assist-” I’m his gas man ,” Cracknell says. Pizzi and Donna Brown, front veterinary harbour at Edinburgh Zoo, set about sourcing supplies for a six-hour procedure. Then, in February 2013, having cooked as far as is possible, they packed up their equipment and boarded a plane to Laos.

Pizzi has always had an affinity for small-time and fragile things. Changing up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, he wanted to be a paediatrician. Later, when he was a teenage student at Pretoria Boys High School( alumni include Elon Musk ), he came here across a dove that had descended from its nest.” I nursed it back to health and then released it ,” he says.” It would visit for weeks afterwards .”

He studied veterinary science at the University of Pretoria and, after graduating, came to the UK in 1999 to undertake a masters at London Zoo. He was stunned by how far veterinary surgery techniques lagged behind human medicine, and rapidly developed an interest in laparoscopy, in which surgical implements are passed into the body through a small tube.” I think there were two of us who started doing it in the UK around the same duration ,” says Pizzi. Today, he chides veterinary students on the method used.” He has an incredible thirst for acquaintance and an see for item, and is always looking to apply or pioneer new techniques in our battleground ,” says Nic Masters, head of veterinary works at London Zoo.

In June last year I saw Pizzi at work at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Fishcross, about an hour’s drive northwest of Edinburgh. Pizzi separates his time between running the veterinary work here, working at Edinburgh Zoo and wandering for surgeries. Since he joined in 2010, the centre has grown into one of the largest wildlife rehabilitation hub in the UK. Every period, members of the public telephone to report injured wildlife. Moves are discharged to collect the swine and, belatedly in the afternoon, their vans roll up to the centre and unload their casualties. The Rescue Centre plowed 9,300 animals in 2016. This year, Pizzi expects that number to pass 10,000.

Through the keyhole: Pizzi performs laparoscopic surgery on a female jaguar. Picture: Romain Pizzi

A series of low-pitched brick builds and enclosures, the centre is divided into four sections: small-minded mammals; big mammals; seals and waterfowl; and birds. The hallways are thick with rasping howl and caws. The air is acrid. Whiteboards roll the species currently requiring Pizzi’s attention. Today, “birds” alone lists woodpeckers, crossbills, jackdaws, crows, robins, thrushes, off-color tits and enormous tits, goldfinches, bullfinches, ospreys, lapwings, oystercatchers, kestrels, a pheasant and several varieties of owl.

Pizzi’s case load has helped him develop new approachings. When he started working at the centre, he would bide belatedly at night, practising on corpses, familiarising himself with anatomies, developing new techniques. Now his table is littered with GoPro cameras- used for teaching- and a Philips electric razor to remove fur. Nearby is a portable x-ray and an ultrasound. He’s seen every affliction: bacteria, ruined bones, even a uncommon occurrence of balloon syndrome, in which a detriment glottis caused a hedgehog to overstate to the size of a beach ball.

When I call, Pizzi has abundance to do. A hedgehog has an infection, so Pizzi prescribes Betamox, an antibiotic, and an antifungal for ringworm. A rabbit with a suspected spinal fracture needs an x-ray. And there’s an exploratory laparoscopy to perform on a beaver announced Justin. (” It took me a few weeks to figure out why ,” Pizzi says.” Justin. Justin Beaver .”) His patient roster is broad: from chimps to tarantulas, but it grieves him that the endangered species- lions, rhinos, suffers- get all the attention when there are animals menaced here in the UK.” I never want to just be doing these large-hearted business the media likes ,” he says.” I probably induce more of significant differences here .”

In depth acquaintance: Pizzi examines an angel shark. Picture: Romain Pizzi

Champa’s surgery started inadequately. Keyhole surgery requires the use of an insufflator, which uses carbon dioxide to inflate the body hole wide enough to accommodate surgical implements. The question: when Pizzi and Cracknell arrived at the rescue centre in Laos, they couldn’t find a carbon dioxide cylinder compatible with the machine.

The centre itself is in a national park near the city of Luang Prabang, with few amenities. The refute ultimately came from an unlikely beginning.” There was one barroom that does enlist brew. Formerly a week they had a keg come up from Luang Prabang ,” Pizzi says.” They said, OK, we’ll have no sketch beer for the next five days .” They donated their CO 2 , which Pizzi connected with some gas piping and hose clamps.

Anaesthesia supported touchy.” She went down on the sedative and stopped breathing ,” says Hunt. The chamber was cramped and humid, cleared warmer by the presence of a BBC documentary crew who had come to film the procedure. Sweat dripped on to the floor tiles. As Pizzi prepared to drill into the skull- utilizing a Dremel woodworking tool- everyone viewed their breather. It was indeed hydrocephalus. Pizzi was able to fit a ventriculoperitoneal shunt, a tube that sits in the intelligence cavity and pours extravagance fluid down into the abdomen, where it is absorbed by the body. Nonetheless, when Pizzi started to fit the tube, a minor catastrophe affect: the sanctuary’s electricity supply- already unfolded by the cinema crew’s sunlights- blew.” The electricals arced and fused ,” says Cracknell. The insufflator was fried.

Animal magical: chimpanzee Ruma and her babe. Image: Tim Flach

But Pizzi was prepared.” There’s so many things that can go wrong ,” he says.” I try to build in a redundancy for all major paraphernalium .” He grew his favourite bit of frugal innovation: an inflatable mattress gush.” You flow that into the abdomen in short explodes and it will puff up with breeze ,” says Pizzi.” Not ideal, but it’s OK .”

” He comes up with amazing things ,” says Cracknell.” There are some surgeries where, halfway through, you are able to envision,’ I’ve bitten off more than I can munch .’ With Romain, I’ve never had one go wrong .” The surgery took six hours. The next day, he and Hunt went to Champa’s den, where she was starting to wake up.” For many years she’d been in pain, she’d been daze, she never searched up ,” says Hunt.” And we called her, and she appeared up and determined us with her sees. It was quite amazing .”

Whenever Pizzi treats endangered species, there’s always a great awareness of what its death means. Pizzi has operated on the Socorro dove, a beautiful chocolate-brown chick native to the Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico , now extinct in the wildernes. And he remains a photo of himself with the last-known Partula Faba, or Captain Cook’s bean snail, named because it was first discovered on Cook’s expedition in 1769. It died at Edinburgh Zoo in 2016, its species with it.

Loving style: Romain Pizzi preparing for surgery. Picture: Tim Flach/ Wired( c) The Conde Nast Publications Ltd

Later this year, Pizzi will fly back to Laos to operate on Champa again. It’s been four years, but her health has deteriorated. Shunts is able to stymie, influence builds in the psyche. Pizzi will operate, check the shunts and replace them if needed. But maybe that’s not the answer. Perhaps “its better” if Champa died. She remains brain-damaged. That’s the question veterinarians have to deal with. How much woe is enough? And “whos” we preserving the animal alive for? If we wanted to save our wildlife we’d be preserving their habitats , not burning down forests, polluting their homes, hunting them into extinction.

” Conservation – it’s such a meaningless statement ,” Pizzi says afterwards, over dinner.” Impeding animals and breeding them in captivity, in some people’s minds that’s preservation, because you’re not taking them from the wild. I don’t think that’s genuine. When beings come into the zoo, they’re not going to save the orangutans. They simply crave a good day out .”

” In veterinary medicine, people say’ unnecessary agony ‘,” Pizzi continues.” Which means that there is some suffering we’re OK with .” We hate to see zoo animals suffer, but care little about the cattles slaughtered for agricultural purposes.( Pizzi is vegetarian .) We fret about mass extinction, but not enough to change our wonts. Therein lies the tragedy of Pizzi’s work: he can develop new ways to save wildlife, but even if he saves 10,000 animals this year, it’s just a drop in the rapidly acidifying ocean.

Fangs a lot: removing a diseased gall bladder from a moon produce. Photograph: Romain Pizzi

He thinks about that a lot. But, then, he also thinks about the case of a white-tailed ocean eagle he once treated. It had a broken backstage and one leg.” It’s easier to kill the chick, and maybe it’s the right thing ,” Pizzi says. The bone was protruding through the skin. But the bird had spirit; even then, it tried to run.” Do I go in and chop a bunch of the dead bone out? How much is too much involvement ?” He culminated up specifying the bones and exhausted it after three months with a tracking implant. Its flight always gazed a little bit off; to this day he wonders if he should have done more. But the eagle lived, and it winged- until it died, four years later, of natural effects.

This is an revised form of a piece that initially ran in Wired magazine. Oliver Franklin-Wallis/ Wired( c) The Conde Nast Publications Ltd

Read more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.