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Vet Gazette

Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

Behind the Scenes at the Aquarium

January 12th, 2012

Dr. Dan Lewer checks on a rhinocerus auklet with arthritis while members of the OSU ZWE Club look on.

On a blustery January day, eight students from the Zoo, Wildlife and Exotics Student Club (ZWE) stood outside a big cement tank surrounded by chain link fence. Inside the fence were several sea otters having their fishy breakfast.

The tank is a holding area for Oregon Aquarium sea otters with health issues. Dr. Dan Lewer, a veterinarian at Animal Medical Care of Newport, Oregon, (and a 2008 OSU graduate) is a consultant at the aquarium and he took ZWE members on a tour of his recent cases.

Aialik is a young sea otter who came to the aquarium after being orphaned off the coast of Alaska. Soon after arriving, Aialik become ill and Lewer diagnosed a blocked bladder. Needless to say, veterinarians don’t operate on sea otters everyday so Lewer and his colleague, Dr. Steve Brown, had to adapt procedures used on goats and horses to surgically remove the bladder stones. Unfortunately, the problem kept returning and eventually Lewer inserted a permanent catheter.  Ashley Briese, co-president of the ZWE Club found this case the most interesting part of her visit to the aquarium. “Aialik’s issues started back in 2009,” she says, “They did numerous surgeries to unblock him. He has a permanent catheter and marsupialized bladder that now grows crystals on it. It is pretty amazing, high technology medicine that has never been tried on a sea otter before.”

Across the way from the sea otter holding tank is another big tank that is the current home of Pinky, a 30 year old harbor seal with cataracts. Lewer explains that pinnipeds in captivity have significant optical problems because their eyes are designed for the low light under water. In captivity, they spend more time on land and their enclosures have more reflective surfaces. “I did not realize how big a problem it was,” says ZWE co-president Megan Hornby. She was very interested in how Lewer performed the eye exam on Pinky. “I was amazed at how well the seal was trained to sit still for the vet to examine her. I can’t even imagine how much time goes into training the animals there.”

Next door to the holding tanks is a no-frills, corrugated steel building that serves as a hospital for aquarium birds. Inside a volunteer holds a rhinoceros auklet steady while Lewer examines it’s legs. The auklet is 21 years old; that is ancient in the wild but the aquarium has many geriatric birds. In fact, the most common health problems in their bird population are arthritis and cataracts. The rhinocerus auklet, also called ‘Number 14’, limps and drags one leg because of arthritis. He also has trouble diving because he can’t kick one foot. Lewer is trying various medications, including NSAIDs, to see what gives the auklet the most relief. The aquarium will treat geriatric birds and keep them as comfortable as possible until they are no longer able to get around their exhibit.

The mission of the Zoo, Wildlife, and Exotics club is to give students an opportunity to work with and learn about wild and exotic animals. Upcoming activities include speakers from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Wildlife Safari, a darting lab, and Oregon Zoo tour, and a visit to the Oregon National Primate Research Center.

For more information about ZWE, contact Ashley Briese or Megan Hornby.

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