Doctor tames 1,200 beasts at N.J. safari park

Veterinarian revels in work with 52 exotic species


JACKSON TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Bill Rives was having another busy day at the office, making the daily rounds of patients - all 1,200 of them. He called out their names, talked to them and laughed at their antics.

Denise, the towering giraffe who had run full steam into an oak tree, breaking her shoulder blade, was looking good, thanks to the doctor's surgical skills.

"She's over at the feeder," Rives said as he headed off road into a herd of giraffes. 'See, her left shoulder is fine now."

He paid a call on Rip, a 7-ton bull elephant with a fondness for banana-flavored monkey biscuits. Rip had been feeling his oats and was separated from the females, who were not in the mood.

'A big boy'

"Ha, ha, ha, you big monster!" Rives said as the massive beast lumbered toward him. "You're a big boy, eh?"

As the veterinarian for 52 exotic species at the Six Flags Wild Safari Animal Park in Ocean County, Rives revels in his work. The 37-year-old Marlton man knows his patients' idiosyncrasies, aches and pains, and has an affection for all of them, no matter how unlovable they may be at times.

"There are many species, but you can break it down into dogs, cats, horses, cattle, chickens and pigs," said Rives, who is married and has three sons, a pet cat and fish.

"You can put a lot of these animals into categories, based sometimes on their digestive systems, their basic physiology, he explained.

"The digestive system of an elephant is more similar to a horse than a cow. A giraffe is a cow with a really, really long neck and long legs. And a tiger is just a big kitty cat. You don't want to get yourself overwhelmed, so you categorize them."

He drives through the park in a white pickup truck, making his rounds along 4.5 miles of roads and sometimes bringing his patients into the park office for treatment.

On a recent Saturday, he passed park visitors who had stopped to stare, mouths open, at a herd of bison and marvel at the camels pushing their wet snouts against the windshield.

Nearby, a black stretch limousine was driving slowly through the monkey jungle, covered with apes from hood to trunk. Giraffes, llamas, antelope and elk wandered between cars in other areas.

Rhino with stress

"At the zoo, it will take you all day to see a bunch of animals," Rives said. 'Here; within the first half-hour of my day, I will have seen elk, bison, elephants, rhinos.

"That's a white rhino," he said, pointing out one of the huge animals. "We have 13 of them."

He had recently finished treating Sylvia, who had been stressed out by an overbearing larger female rhino, Michelin. A few injections and visits later, Syl was her old self again, her digestive problems gone.

"I remember when the park got built" in 1974, Rlves said. "I was a kid then, but I always wanted to be a vet." He worked as a park gatekeeper and seasonal warden before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine and getting the full-time vet job in 1993.

Since then, he has bonded with all of the animals. But he does have favorites, and one of them is Squeak, a 5,000-pound white rhino - nick-named for his high-pitched vocals - who straightens his back legs in delight whenever someone strokes the heavy gray skin around his neck.

"He's the man!" Rives said as he walked up to the rhino's compound. "He's the second-most-prolific rhino breeder in the world, according to the international studbooks. One sweet rhino!"

A typical day can take the vet from the more familiar elephants and rhinos to exotics such as Hisler, a South African Ankoli cow with a distinctive goose-step from an abscess on her spinal cord, and the addax, a name-less white antelope with a suspected brain infection.

Tigers are favorites

His favorites, Rives said, are the tigers - such as Sakura, a Bengal tiger recovering from a kidney infection.

"I just finished darting her with her medication," he said. "She's a good cat. She knows what I'm going to do and gives you a look like she's saying, 'Well, go ahead.'"

Not all of the animals see him as a friend, he said, and his arrival can cause quite a stir.

"We have 185 baboons," Rives said. "I castrated 40 of the big males. I have the one truck that when I go into the Monkey Jungle, I get everyone on the fence.

"They run away because I am a predator to them. I TB-tested, vaccinated and microchlpped all of them. Most of the animals know I can do something to them, and they don't appreciate it."

The monkeys, he said, "know my face. They might jump on the truck, look in, see me, and think, 'I know you, eeeeehhhhh!' - and run. They can tell."

At his office, Rives looked in on Abby the wallaroo, recovering from a nasty infection after a bite on her left arm from one of the male wallaroos, and a llama, known only as No. 174, who had given birth and was accompanied by her nursing baby, or crla.

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