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

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

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

The patient in question was a three-year-old female Asiatic black endure, also known as a moon tolerate, called Champa. Moon allows, poached for their bile and bodyparts, are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rescued as a puppy and brought to a Free the Bears sanctuary in Laos, Champa had a deformed skull and impaired eyesight. While other produces would socialise, she would mope around her pen, head down, apparently in affliction. Pizzi believed “shes had” hydrocephalus, a uncommon problem in which excess cerebrospinal flowing is an increase in the skull, causing brain damage.

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

” Anywhere else in the nations of the world, the recommendation would have been to euthanise her ,” Hunt says. But in Laos, which has a Buddhist tradition and strict conservation statutes determined in part as a response to the bear-bile transaction, euthanasia is ban. So Hunt asked Pizzi for an alternative solution.” We started talking about the possibility of surgery ,” Hunt says.

Veterinary surgeons operate under unique constraints. 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 pressings. A cutting-edge surgery on a domestic pet can expenditure millions of pounds. By contrast, wildlife kindness can be forced to function on small budgets. And surgeries are often performed in the field, at sanctuaries and wildlife funds with few of the average zoo luxuries, such as sterile theatres and dependable electricity.

In Champa’s case, even approving the diagnosis proved impossible.” There’s no money in Laos ,” Pizzi says.” There’s no MRI scanner in the entire country. They don’t even do the operation on human rights .” The nearest human hospital refused to admit an animal for the purposes of an x-ray. What’s more , no vet had previously been attempted to perform psyche surgery on a bring 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 saves an repository of mammal skeletons for science studies, and acquired the skull of a young female moon endure, which he x-rayed to help create a digital replica- a kind of delineate.” You find another way ,” he says.

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

Before long, Pizzi turned to Jonathan Cracknell, a veterinary anaesthetist and regular collaborator, to assist-” I’m his gas gentleman ,” Cracknell says. Pizzi and Donna Brown, manager veterinary nanny at Edinburgh Zoo, moving forward sourcing renders for a six-hour running. Then, in February 2013, having readied as far as is possible, they packed up their material and boarded an aeroplane to Laos.

Pizzi has always had an affinity for small and unstable things. Germinating 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 fallen from its nest.” I nursed it back to health and then secreted it ,” he says.” It would visit for weeks afterwards .”

He studied veterinary discipline 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 proficiencies lagged behind human medication, and quickly developed an interest in laparoscopy, in which surgical tools are overtaken into the body through a small tubing.” I think there were two of us who started doing it in the UK around the same period ,” says Pizzi. Today, he teaches veterinary students on the technique.” He has an incredible thirst for acquaintance and an gaze for item, and is always looking to apply or pioneer new techniques in our discipline ,” says Nic Masters, is chairman of veterinary works at London Zoo.

In June last year I called Pizzi at work at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Fishcross, about an hour’s drive northwest of Edinburgh. Pizzi divides his time between participating in the veterinary assistance here, is currently working on Edinburgh Zoo and travelling for surgeries. Since he joined in 2010, the centre has grown into one of the largest wildlife rehabilitation hub in the UK. Every day, members of the public telephone to report injured wildlife. Motorists are dispatched to collect the animals and, late in the afternoon, their vans roll up to the centre and unload their fatalities. The Rescue Centre treated 9,300 swine in 2016. This year, Pizzi expects that number to pass 10,000.

Through the keyhole: Pizzi plays laparoscopic surgery on a female jaguar. Photograph: Romain Pizzi

A series of low-pitched brick constructs and paddocks, the centre is divided into four sections: small mammals; large-scale mammals; closes and waterfowl; and chicks. The passages are thick with rasping shrieking and caws. The air is acrid. Whiteboards register the species currently requiring Pizzi’s attention. Today, “birds” alone rosters woodpeckers, crossbills, jackdaws, crows, robins, thrushes, blue-blooded tits and great tits, goldfinches, bullfinches, ospreys, lapwings, oystercatchers, kestrels, a pheasant and several assortments of owl.

Pizzi’s case load has helped him develop brand-new approaches. When he started working at service centres, he would stand belatedly at night, practising on corpses, familiarising himself with dissections, developing new techniques. Now his table is littered with GoPro cameras- used only for educating- and a Philips electric razor to remove fur. Nearby is a portable x-ray and an ultrasound. He’s seen every calamity: bacteria, ruined bones, even a uncommon lawsuit of bag disorder, in which a detriment glottis caused a hedgehog to inflate to the size of a beach ball.

When I see, Pizzi has spate to do. A hedgehog has an infection, so Pizzi prescribes Betamox, an antibiotic, and an antifungal for ringworm. A rabbit with a suspected spinal rupture needs an x-ray. And there’s an exploratory laparoscopy to perform on a beaver called Justin. (” It took me a week to figure out why ,” Pizzi says.” Justin. Justin Beaver .”) His patient listing is wide-ranging: from chimpanzees to tarantulas, but it grieves him that the endangered species- lions, rhinos, carries- get all the attention when there are animals peril here in the UK.” I never want to just be doing these large-scale business the media likes ,” he says.” I possibly see more of a difference here .”

In depth lore: Pizzi examines an angel shark. Photograph: Romain Pizzi

Champa’s surgery started poorly. Keyhole surgery requires the use of an insufflator, which applies carbon dioxide to inflate their own bodies cavity wide enough to accommodate surgical implements. The trouble: when Pizzi and Cracknell arrived at the save 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 explanation eventually came from an unlikely root.” There was one rail that does enlist beer. Once 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 tricky.” She went down on the sedative and stopped breathing ,” says Hunt. The room was cramped and humid, represented 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- using a Dremel woodworking tool- everyone hampered their breath. It was indeed hydrocephalus. Pizzi was able to fit a ventriculoperitoneal shunt, a tube that sits in the psyche 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 calamity hit: the sanctuary’s electricity supply- already pulled by the film crew’s lighters- blew.” The electricals arced and fused ,” says Cracknell. The insufflator was fried.

Animal magic: chimpanzee Ruma and her newborn. Picture: 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 equipment .” He created his favourite section of frugal invention: an inflatable mattress shoot.” You guide that into the abdomen in short explodes and it will puff up with air ,” 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 fantasize,’ I’ve bitten off more than I can grind .’ With Romain, I’ve never had one go wrong .” The surgery took six hours. The next day, he and Hunt went to see Champa’s den, where she was starting to wake up.” For many years she’d been in pain, she’d been daze, she never ogled up ,” says Hunt.” And we called her, and she ogled up and tied us with her sees. It was quite amazing .”

Whenever Pizzi plows endangered species, there’s always a great awareness of what its demise aims. Pizzi has operated on the Socorro dove, a beautiful dark-brown bird native to the Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico , now extinct in the wild. And he hinders a photo of himself with the last-known Partula Faba, or Captain Cook’s bean snail, referred because it was firstly detected on Cook’s expedition in 1769. It died at Edinburgh Zoo in 2016, its species with it.

Loving touching: 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 degraded. Shunts can become blocked, push erects in the intelligence. Pizzi will operate, check the shunts and replace them if needed. But maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe it would be better if Champa died. She remains brain-damaged. That’s the question veterinarians have to deal with. How much agony is enough? And “whos” we impeding the animal alive for? If we wanted to save our wildlife we’d be preserving their habitats , not burning down woodlands, polluting their environs, hunting them into extinction.

” Conservation – it’s such a meaningless statement ,” Pizzi says afterwards, over dinner.” Obstructing animals and breeding them in confinement, in some people’s minds that’s protection, because you’re not taking them from the wild. I don’t think that’s sincere. When parties come into the zoo, they’re not going to save the orangutans. They exactly require a good day out .”

” In veterinary medicine, people say’ unnecessary torment ‘,” Pizzi continues.” Which means that there is some suffering we’re OK with .” We dislike to see zoo swine suffer, but attend little about the cattle slaughtered for agriculture.( Pizzi is vegetarian .) We fuss about mass extinguishing, but not enough to change our habits. 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 suffer. Photo: Romain Pizzi

He thinks about that a lot. But, then, he also thinks about the case of a white-tailed sea eagle he once treated. It had a shattered wing and one leg.” It’s easier to kill the bird, and maybe it’s the right thing ,” Pizzi says. The bone was protruding through the scalp. But the chick had spirit; even then, it tried to tent-fly.” Do I go in and chop a bunch of the dead bone out? How much is too much intervention ?” He intention up specifying the bones and secreted it after 3 month with a tracking embed. Its flight ever examined a little bit off; to this day he wonders if he should have done more. But the eagle lived, and it ran- until it died, four years later, of natural reasons.

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

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