At the aquarium, the unexpected is routine

Sue Nevy

August 07, 1991|By Sue Nevy

ALL APPEARED to be in order on first glance around the quarantine room behind the seal pool at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Harbor seal 91-05 rested comfortably in his pool. Thin and debilitated when rescued several weeks ago on a Virginia beach, the nearly full-grown seal stirred at my presence, a signal that his breakfast of herring and smelt was probably on its way. His huge dark eyes followed my every movement, reminding me that I wasn't alone SueNevyin being awake and on the job at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. His condition had stabilized and he appeared somewhat brighter. I smiled at the thought. No surprises here -- until, that is, the sound of a splash pierced the silence of the room.

The rhythmic splashing seemed to come from the far corner of the quarantine area, an area reserved for stranded harbor seal pups. I knew no seal pups were here, but the fact remained, something was splashing around in a kiddie pool across the room. Oh well, the unexpected is part of the routine during medical rounds at the Aquarium -- why should today be any different?

I walked over and peered down into the pool. The paddle-like flippers of a young loggerhead sea turtle slapped clumsily at the water's surface as it swam lazy laps around the molded plastic pool. Jovial blue Smurf characters lining the pool contrasted sharply to this rugged, barnacle-clad reptile of the sea, but the seriousness of his injury dictated the use of the small pool. Unmistakable evidence of what must have been a painful collision with a boat propeller marked the turtle's skull. A deep laceration slashed across its head and extended across the bridge of its nose. Somehow it seemed such an injustice; it was just a youngster.

Only then did I notice the note hurriedly jotted on the memo board. The turtle had been brought to the aquarium during the pre-dawn hours after Aquarium medical staff and Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a veterinarian with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, had given it emergency treatment in Ocean City. The mystery was fast unraveling. Poor thing had had a run-in with a houseboat in Isle of Wight Bay.

Our staff veterinarian, Dr. Brent Whitaker, arrived shortly -- eager to begin the diagnostics and treatment of the loggerhead. Hundreds of pounds of presumably portable X-ray equipment was assembled in the room as I calculated exposure setting. We needed enough X-ray power to penetrate the turtle's thick skull. A seasoned turtle handler and our stranding coordinator -- both on staff -- worked to position the nearly 70-pound turtle for X-rays and blood samplings. Its massive ivory-colored beak snapped in protest. No way for us to tell our patient that the procedures and equipment were simply and entirely for its own good.

Fortunately, X-rays revealed only a slight fracture of a nasal bone. A blood sample drawn from its foreflipper showed no sign of infection from the gash on its head. This was one lucky loggerhead after all -- after a few days of R&R and observation, our barnacled patient would be ready for its return to the sea.

My role with the turtle was over for now. With nearly 5,000 other creatures in the building, it was time to move on.

A red-capped cardinal, hatched high in the Aquarium rain forest several months earlier, awaited clearance for its move to a zoo in Omaha, Neb. The small bird is no more interested in my attention than the turtle had been. It nips at my hand as I extend its wing to draw a blood sample for analysis. Anatomically, a bird's wing is remarkably similar to a human arm. The vein we use to draw blood from birds matches that of the one generally used in the same procedure on humans -- on the inside of the elbow. The procedure is quick and the cardinal now has only one more hurdle, a physical or exit exam by Dr. Whitaker.

The health care of animals at the Aquarium is enviable. It is far more comprehensive than any human health care system. Preventive medicine is the top priority, with the eyes of veterinary and animal care specialists ever watchful of every animal's behavior, eating habits and sleep or resting patterns. Just as marine creatures become injured or ill in their ocean environment, animals at the aquarium also occasionally require medical care. When it happens, a team of specialists is there to diagnose and treat every animal, from the tiniest frog to the 1,100-pound beluga whales.

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