At the nation's aquariums, vets stay busy fixing fish

Specimens undergo sophisticated surgery, with improvisations

November 14, 2006|By Nancy Wride | Nancy Wride,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Dr. Lance Adams preps for surgery, snapping on latex gloves under a clear blue sky.

Nearby, a medical team wearing hooded wetsuits administers underwater anesthesia. Members of the team hoist the doped patient out of the pool and muscle her onto a makeshift operating table.

Adams, gripping sterile scissors, confers with various specialists on respiration rates and oxygen levels.

"How's her gilling?" he calls out to his dozen colleagues clad in black rubber.

He's about to mend a wound with the aid of boat glue, rubber bands and Popsicle sticks. A baby diaper will be employed. Also a garden hose.

In this watery wing of surgery, it takes high-tech medicine and ingenuity to give a fish a nose job.

As staff veterinarian to the 12,500 animals at the Aquarium of the Pacific here, Adams is among a growing number of aquatic specialists bringing treatment more common to humans and pets into the tank.

He is almost comically stoic when describing the nose job on the freshwater sawfish, a ray whose body looks more like a shark's. He rattles off other recent cases. Removing an eel's tumor. Bandaging the ulcer of a seahorse. Draining the wrist abscess of a sea turtle. Using ultrasound on a sea otter.

Then there are the fake fish eyes.

Tank injuries, parasites and bites from other fish make eye injuries common, Adams said, so he and other aquatic veterinarians, such as Dr. Mike Murray at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, do the occasional prosthetic eye job.

In the past, most sick fish were pulled out of the tank and new fish dropped in.

"We used to call it replacement therapy," Murray said. "Now we say, `Let's fix them.'"

With an increasing number of aquariums, a booming commercial fish-farming trade and more collectors of pricey fish, the number of aquatic doctors has swelled in the past decade, said William Van Bonn, president of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine. The group has 500 members.

Van Bonn said many of the roughly 30 accredited aquariums in the U.S. employ "aquavets," as one of the trade Web sites calls them. And they are inventing new ways to help animals live longer.

"The same technology that would be used to give you a tubal ligation or remove a gallbladder, we can use for sea otters, fish, birds," said Murray.

Take the eye job, for example. Adams said that, even in captivity, if animals sense another's vulnerability, such as a missing eye, they are more prone to attack. In short, appearance matters, even to a red snapper.

Beyond medical care for animals, Adams and Murray agreed, there is a practical need for aquariums' exhibited animals to look healthy.

"You can't really put a fish on exhibit with a cavity where the eyeball was. The public just won't accept it," Murray said.

About 190,000 schoolchildren take field trips to the Long Beach aquarium each year, and seeing animals with gaping wounds could upset them.

"Part of what we do is cosmetic," he said. That was true to a degree with the sawfish.

The endangered fish, a freshwater species that can also live in salt water, has a long, square-tipped nose ringed by horizontal "teeth." It is "unique in appearance," Adams said, and you can't show children a sawfish that lacks a saw.

The Long Beach aquarium's sawfish was obtained by a collector in Australia, where the species is threatened by dwindling habitat. Adams thinks a shark at the aquarium that usually wouldn't bother the sawfish might have snapped at it, fracturing the saw and hindering the creature's ability to feed.

The operation on that March morning took place outdoors, but it started before the aquarium opened. The cloth diaper, soft and water-absorbent, kept the fish's eyes wet and shielded them from light and movement.

Just after 10 a.m., as schoolchildren began streaming into the aquarium and heading for the popular shark lagoon, Adams and his team patted their patient under a wet towel, its wound stitched up, the Popsicle sticks affixed with waterproof boat glue to the side "teeth" (they grow out like fingernails). Rubber bands held the Popsicle splints in place while the glue hardened.

The 6-foot-3 sawfish was safely plopped back into her post-op recovery room - the shallow end of the lagoon - and Adams went indoors to his infirmary, a sterile-looking white room like any other doctor's office.

Adams, 35, has a tanned, youthful appearance but a serious bearing, even when reminded that only a few hundred people in the world might utter a sentence such as "the rockfish had corneal difficulties."

Nancy Wride writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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