From sharks to chimps to moon assumes: tales 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 preservation benevolence Free the Bears approached Romain Pizzi, one of the most innovative wildlife surgeons in Europe, with an rare patient. A expert 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 events others won’t. If you’re in control 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 a kind .”

The patient in question was a three-year-old female Asiatic pitch-black make, also known as a moon birth, 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 babe and brought to a Free the Bears sanctuary in Laos, Champa had a deformed skull and impaired perception. While other makes would socialise, she would mope around her paddock, leader down, seemingly in agony. Pizzi believed she had hydrocephalus, a rare circumstance in which excess cerebrospinal fluid builds up in the skull, making brain damage.

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

” Anywhere else in countries around the world, the recommendation would then have euthanise her ,” Hunt says. But in Laos, which has a Buddhist tradition and strict maintenance rules shaped in part as a response to the bear-bile busines, euthanasia is outlaw. So Hunt asked Pizzi for an alternative mixture.” We started talking about the possibility of surgery ,” Hunt says.

Veterinary surgeons operate under unique restrictions. 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 fiscal press. A cutting-edge surgery on a domestic domesticated can expense several tens of thousands of pounds. By distinguish, wildlife benevolences can be forced to function on small budgets. And surgeries are often performed in the field, at sanctuaries and wildlife stockpiles with few of the average zoo indulgences, such as infertile theatres and dependable electricity.

In Champa’s case, even substantiating 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 an x-ray. What’s more , no veterinary has in the past attempted to perform mentality surgery on a bear 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 remains an archive of mammal skeletons for scientific study, and borrowed the skull of a young girl moon bring, which he x-rayed to help create a digital replication- a kind of map.” You find another way ,” he says.

Bearing up: Champa the moon bear’s brain surgery. Image: 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, foreman veterinary nanny at Edinburgh Zoo, set about sourcing gives for a six-hour operation. Then, in February 2013, having organized as much as possible, they packed up their paraphernalium and boarded a plane to Laos.

Pizzi has always had an attraction for small and vulnerable acts. Ripening up in Port Elizabeth, South africans, he wanted to be a paediatrician. Afterwards, when he was a teenage student at Pretoria Boys High School( alumni include Elon Musk ), he came here across a dive that had descended from its nest.” I harboured it back to health and then secreted it ,” he says.” It would visit for weeks afterwards .”

He learnt 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 proficiencies lagged behind human medicine, and rapidly developed those who are interested laparoscopy, in which surgical implements are overtaken in the main body through a small tube.” I think there were two of us who started doing it in the UK around the same meter ,” says Pizzi. Today, he teaches veterinary students on the method used.” He has an incredible thirst for knowledge and an eye for item, and is always looking to apply or pioneer new techniques in our field ,” says Nic Masters, head of veterinary assistances 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 splits his time between participating in the veterinary service here, working at Edinburgh Zoo and touring for surgeries. Since he joined in 2010, the centre has grown into one of greater wildlife reclamation centre in the UK. Every daytime, members of the public telephone to report injured wildlife. Moves are discharged to collect the animals and, late in the afternoon, their vans roll up to the centre and off-load their fatalities. The Rescue Centre plowed 9,300 animals in 2016. This year, Pizzi expects that number to pass 10,000.

Through the keyhole: Pizzi play-acts laparoscopic surgery on a female jaguar. Photo: Romain Pizzi

A series of low-toned brick buildings and pens, the centre is subdivided into four divisions: small-minded mammals; big mammals; closes and waterfowl; and fowls. The corridors are thick with rasping shriek and caws. The breath is acrid. Whiteboards roll the species currently compelling Pizzi’s attention. Today, “birds” alone rosters woodpeckers, crossbills, jackdaws, crows, robins, thrushes, off-color tits and great tits, goldfinches, bullfinches, ospreys, lapwings, oystercatchers, kestrels, a pheasant and several varieties of owl.

Pizzi’s case load has helped him develop new approaches. When he started working at the centre, he would stand belatedly at night, practising on corpses, familiarising himself with anatomies, developing new techniques. Now his desk is littered with GoPro cameras- used for schooling- and a Philips electric razor to remove fur. Nearby is a portable x-ray and an ultrasound. He’s seen every calamity: bacteria, busted bones, even a rare suit of balloon disorder, in which a marred glottis caused a hedgehog to overstate to the size of a beach ball.

When I see, Pizzi has batch 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 called Justin. (” It took me a few weeks to figure out why ,” Pizzi says.” Justin. Justin Beaver .”) His patient roster is wide-ranging: from chimpanzees to tarantulas, but it saddens him that the endangered species- lions, rhinos, stands- get all the attention when there are animals peril here in the UK.” I never want to merely be doing these big-hearted enterprises the media likes ,” he says.” I possibly constitute more of a difference here .”

In magnitude knowledge: 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 the body cavity wide enough to accommodate surgical applies. The problem: when Pizzi and Cracknell reached the save centre in Laos, they couldn’t find a carbon dioxide cylinder consistent with the machine.

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

Anaesthesia testified difficult.” She went down on the sedative and stopped breathing ,” says Hunt. The room was cramped and humid, obliged 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- applying a Dremel woodworking tool- everyone held their breather. It was indeed hydrocephalus. Pizzi was able to fit a ventriculoperitoneal shunt, a tube that sits in the mentality cavity and pours excess fluid down into the abdomen, where it is absorbed by the body. However, when Pizzi started to fit the tube, a minor cataclysm struck: the sanctuary’s electricity supply- already stretched by the cinema crew’s illuminates- blew.” The electricals arced and fused ,” says Cracknell. The insufflator was fried.

Animal occult: chimp Ruma and her newborn. Photograph: 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 the central gear .” He made his favourite piece of frugal innovation: an inflatable mattress pump.” You guide that into the abdomen in short flares and it will puff up with breath ,” says Pizzi.” Not ideal, but it’s OK .”

” He comes up with amazing things ,” says Cracknell.” There are some surgeries where, halfway through, you might recollect,’ I’ve bitten off more than I can chew .’ With Romain, I’ve never had one go wrong .” The surgery took six hours. The next day, he and Hunt was just going to Champa’s den, where she was starting to wake up.” For many years she’d been in pain, she’d been dazzle, she never appeared up ,” says Hunt.” And we called her, and she looked up and chose us with her gazes. It was quite amazing .”

Whenever Pizzi considers endangered species, there’s always a great awareness of what its demise signifies. Pizzi has operated on the Socorro dove, a beautiful brown fowl native to the Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico , now extinct in the wild. And he prevents a photograph of himself with the last-known Partula Faba, or Captain Cook’s bean snail, called because it was first discovered on Cook’s expedition in 1769. It expired at Edinburgh Zoo in 2016, its species with it.

Loving stroke: Romain Pizzi preparing for surgery. Image: 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 blocked, pressure builds 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 torment is enough? And who are we hindering the animal alive for? If we wanted to save our wildlife we’d be preserving their environments , not igniting down woodlands, polluting their milieu, hunting them into extinction.

” Conservation – it’s such a meaningless word ,” Pizzi says subsequently, over dinner.” Retaining swine and engendering them in confinement, 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 sustaining we’re OK with .” We dislike to see zoo animals sustain, but care little about the cattles slaughtered for agriculture.( Pizzi is vegetarian .) We fuss about mass extinguishing, but not enough to change our garbs. 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 decrease in the rapidly acidifying ocean.

Fangs a lot: removing a diseased gall bladder from a moon accept. Picture: Romain Pizzi

He thinks about that a lot. But, then, he also thinks about the case of a white-tailed ocean eagle he once considered. It had a ruined 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 pilot.” Do I go in and chop a bunch of the dead bone out? How much is too much intervention ?” He objective up giving the bones and exhausted it after 3 month with a tracking embed. Its flight ever ogled a bit off; to this day he wonders if he should have done more. But the eagle lived, and it hovered- until it croaked, four years later, of natural justifications.

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

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