The end of my marine mammal summer school

dolphins jumping

Well I am currently writing this as I sit on the train on my way to Munich to then keep going back towards Slovakia. There is a little stress as my train was delayed by 30 minutes which meant I would miss my connection to Budapest, however the previously delayed train arrived as the station staff were debating what to do with me. So at present I am on an delayed earlier train which is pretty much running at the same time as the train I am scheduled to be on.

So anyways, sadly my week long marine mammal summer school is over, I’m exhausted now (if I make my Munich connection I got a 9 hour journey to sleep!) however my brain is still buzzing with all the information that has been packed into it. Today was more about the studbook and population management programs. This is where the zoo environment can play a role In bringing species back into the wild. For example one of the first programs was for the black footed ferret which went extinct in the wild towards the end of the 1970’s. In 1985 a captive breeding program using 18 captive animals allowed the species to be reintroduced which I think is pretty cool. Obviously this was only possible as the environment for these animals was still there (unlike the environments now wiped out because of palm oil or deforestation).

The next talk was one I was pretty excited about, we had international marine mammal veterinary consultant Geraldine Lacave to teach us as much as she could about reproduction. Now this is an interesting topic, and one that uses a lot of specialised techniques. Salt water is actually lethal for sperm, and so dolphins for example have evolved a cervix which prevents the contamination of sperm with water. A lot of reproduction is monitoring and this is usually done with ultrasound – because of the size of muscles and blubber layers there are very specific acoustic windows that must be used for this on each species.

We then finished up with a look at the zoo’s and the public which was very interesting to get an inside perspective on. Whilst people have a right to protest, the question here was when it came to people protesting animal welfare, where did the staff welfare stand?

Under the skin when things go wrong in marine mammals

Vet summer school with dolphins

So this morning we did our anaesthesia and immobilisation workshop, unfortunately there were no procedures required in the marine mammals so we got a wild horse instead that needed x-rays and hoof trimming. Slightly disappointed but a great speaker and I’ve taken away pages full of tips and tricks that will help me with future anaesthesia in different species. So after lunch with these guys…

Vet summer school with dolphinsWe started with the pathology of marine mammals, this is a pretty special area and we had one of the top vets in the world taking the afternoon. We covered so many disorders including diseases and parasites not seen in normal animals that I finished with a headache, and a ton of notes to go over. Then we got to try our hands at histology of marine mammals as well, this was interesting especially as I have not finished veterinary pathological anatomy yet biut was well worth it to get a good explaination of just what was going on as well as a demonstration of just what can be achieved using simple histological stains.

The evening then went to scientific writting, with us being given blood data for the past few years for all the dolphins here to look at which was pretty interesting. Before we finished for the day we decided to check out the directors claim on Monday that night boxes were not used here and animals were left outside at night – he was telling the truth and it was interesting to be able to see how some animals sleep at night.

The start of a marine mammal education on dolphins and manatees

Manatee having lunch

Well today has been long, lectures started at 8am this morning and we stopped to go out to dinner at 7pm (though the debates kept going). Now tommorow morning is anaesthesia and immobilisation, and debate is still going on here so I can only afford to take 15 minutes away to give a quick update here!

So this morning started with the zoo director talking about concepts of animal behaviour, this was pretty interesting and I learnt absolutely tons. What is cool here is that the director is not afraid to challenge the “norm”, and so this zoo is one of the few where animals are allowed to stay out at night, or where options are given so the animal can choose their preference of nesting box.

Now a nesting box may not seem important, and traditionally this has been placed by the keepers. However animals recognise that a keeper will come each day into that part of the enclosure whether to clean or feed them and so at one zoo the animal decided to raise their cubs 1 foot in front of the public fence. This was because the animal felt safe, no one had ever come over or through the fence into the enclosure yet the keeper kept coming in the keepers door. This changed the thinking here so that nesting boxes are no longer put near entrances to the enclosure.

With the dolphins here they are kept with the sea lions in a new purpose built outdoor laguona. This has over 6,000 million litres of salt water, and was constructed with new thoughts in dolphin behaviour so as to reduce stress and improve welfare. This project cost around 30 million euros with nearly 20 million euros spent on the backend life support systems to maintain the salt water! This was then followed by a tour of the rest of the zoo including the manatee’s with behaviour and enrichment implementation explained which was really cool!

Manatee having lunch

We then headed back into the classroom after lunch where we went over anatomy and physiology of marine mammals. Now this is extremely interesting as there are extreme differences between species, and these differences affect the medical treatment of these animals. For example the trachea in true seals is long with short bronchi with loads of loads supported only by muscle which makes them susceptable for lung collapse whilst the eared seal has cartiledge here so does not suffer from this problem.

We then looked at the physiology of the dive reflex which is really cool and will get its own diary entry when I am back next week!

Next up was a lecture on tuberculosis (TB) which as many know affects cattle, it also can affect zoo animals including elephants. Its a big problem currently in India with temple elephants, and we looked at treatment here and its occurance also in marine mammals. Coming onto that we looked at Avian TB which isn’t a real tuberculosis but a mycobacteriosis that is still a problem in zoos. Recently in Europe there has been problems with penguins with it which was also interesting as it showed that it could not be detected on xray, but by CT with loads of images of this to look at.

This was followed up by a talk on what it is to be a zoo vet, which was interesting before we then started into a debate session on some of the issues mentioned during the day. As potential vets we have to understand the ethical and moral aspects of what marine mammal and zoo medicine really is about and several issues were actually discussed here. We then moved onto the design of research projects and how to write a scientific paper which is really important in zoo and wildlife medicine but something not really taught well in vet schools.

Finishing up we then moved to town for dinner where the debate resumed. What a day!