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Call of the wild
No two days are the same for Busch Gardens senior veterinarian, who cares for about 300 species.
Imagine this itinerary: checkups on a newborn wildebeest, 2-month-old giraffe and bouncing 6-month-old gorilla, a quick dental check on an adult hippo, and emergency surgery on a red fox. That's all in a day's work for the wildlife veterinarians at Busch Gardens Tampa, in Tampa, Florida, who care for more than 12,000 animals.
Senior veterinarian Peter Black, DVM, always dreamed of working with wild animals and has been doing so most of his career. After graduating from veterinary school, he performed wildlife rehabilitation at the Wildlife Center of Virginia and then served a three-year residency at the St. Louis Zoo. He's worked at Busch Gardens since 2010. In addition, he's involved with the Sahara Conservation Fund, the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and the Association of Avian Veterinarians.
dvm360: You've been working with wildlife since you graduated from the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. What drew you to that branch of veterinary medicine?
Black: I've wanted to work with wild animals for as long as I can remember. My parents took me to zoos when I was a little kid, and I was enthralled. I went into the undergraduate process knowing that I wanted to work with wild animals, but it wasn't until relatively late as an undergraduate that I decided to go the veterinary route. I guess the draw for me was the chance to work to save wild animals in a hands-on way.
dvm360: It must be difficult to specialize in approximately 300 species. How do you prepare yourself for such a wide variety of animal care?
Black: Being a zoo specialist is certainly the most wide-ranging specialty. To get into that kind of medicine, you have to stay as current as possible with cutting-edge techniques and findings, since new discoveries are made all the time. You also have to be the type of person who enjoys the challenges of extrapolating from species or scenarios that you know onto ones that are unfamiliar to either you or potentially to veterinary medicine as a whole.
Black performs an exam on a cheetah cub. PHOTO COURTESY PETER BLACK.
dvm360: How many veterinarians are employed by Busch Gardens, and what type of work do they do?
Black: At Busch Gardens Tampa, we have four clinical veterinarians who work exclusively here, as well as a pathologist whom we share with SeaWorld Orlando. We perform all the medical care for the animals that call Busch Gardens home and also provide veterinary services for roughly 400 wildlife cases a year-those mostly include raptors and sandhill cranes.
dvm360: What is a normal day at Busch Gardens like?
Black: We typically start the day early so we can do field procedures and “house calls” on patients in the park before the heat of the Florida sun takes effect. Midmorning into the early afternoon, we perform our hospital procedures, which are mostly routine exams, treatments, physical therapy sessions or wildlife surgeries. Our afternoons are usually taken up with meetings and entering medical records.
dvm360: Can you tell us about your most unusual case?
Black: That's a hard one to pick! A rather bizarre one we had was the case of a chronic nasal discharge in a male white-cheeked gibbon. We were expecting to find a tooth-root problem or nasal infection, but were instead surprised to find he had somehow managed to get three segments of sawgrass stuffed up one of his nares. We were able to get them out using a small endoscope.
dvm360: What's the most challenging aspect of your job?
Black: It's pretty common that we need to find treatment methods that are feasible with any given species, even if those don't match the textbook approach. For example, when we couldn't find a commercially available anesthetic facemask that would fit some of our larger carnivore species, we created one. We all get pretty good at thinking outside of the box.
dvm360: Why did you get involved in the Sahara Conservation Fund, and what's your role in the group's work?
Black: Primarily I have been involved in its efforts to help save the North African subspecies of ostrich, the largest subspecies in the world. I became involved because they needed a zoo veterinarian who had the skills necessary to work on these exotic birds. Currently, we're working to improve the facilities at a breeding facility in Niger, with the eventual goal of rereleasing these incredible birds back into the wild there.
dvm360: Is it fair to say you have a special affinity for ostriches?
Black: That would be a fair assessment. They are definitely in my top five. I'm not sure exactly how that developed. Their medical care is different from any other animal. They are amazingly tough animals to be able to survive in the environments they live in, and seeing them move is probably as close as we can come in modern times to seeing a theropod dinosaur in action.
dvm360: For a young veterinarian or veterinary student who wants to get into wildlife care, what advice would you offer?
Black: Don't get discouraged by the naysayers. Also, get as much experience at different types of facilities as you can-you never know what might come in handy later in your career.
dvm360: I understand that you compete in triathlons with your wife in your off hours. What's your best time, and are you training for a triathlon now?
Black: The distances vary depending on the event, and my pace changes a lot depending on whether I'm pushing/pulling my kids along for the race or not. That said, my best paces are roughly 1:35/100 yards for the swim, 18 mph on the bike, and 8:00 minute/mile on the run. I'm toning down the training a bit for the summer, but I'm hoping to ramp it up again this fall and winter for an Olympic triathlon in the spring.
dvm360: What do you do to relax and recharge?
Black: I enjoy reading books, lifting weights and playing with my sons Adam, 5, and David, 3.
Donna Loyle, MS, is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer who specializes in veterinary topics.