By Robert J. Galbraith for The Montreal Gazette

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Granby, Quebec—-When Marie-Josée Limoges was seven years old, she had different interests from most little girls her age. Now, as the head veterinarian at the Granby Zoo, she is living her dream of treating the resident menagerie of over 200 exotic animals at this modern-day Noah’s ark.

 “When I was 7, bats were my favourite animal,” she explained. “Little girls usually like ponies and dolls, but not really me. I’m attracted to the unusual, which is a good part of my job at the zoo.”

Dr. MJ, as she prefers being called, never knows what to expect in her working day, which can be full of surprises. Because of this, her background in animal medicine is regularly spliced with compromise and ingenuity. This adaptability is imperative in the treatment of animals as diverse as South American toads or 5000 kg elephants.           

During a recent visit to the zoo, a red-crowned crane is being gently wrangled out of a temporary holding cell and walked down a hallway towards the zoo’s clinic by two animal keepers.           

One has a hand grasped around the bird’s spear-like beak, guiding the crane along the hallway, while the other keeper holds the bird tight, trying to prevent the 2-metre wings from flapping and possibly being damaged against the corridor walls. All three seem to be part of a delicate dance as they shuffle down the corridor, heralded by the crane’s trumpeting ‘kar-r-r-o-o-o-o’-sounding calls.           

At the clinic the bird is anesthetized, then laid out on a gurney. “It’s OK baby,” says the 39-year-old doctor, as she gently feels the lump on the bird’s neck. A blood sample is taken with the help of veterinarian intern, Dr. Joëlle Garand, who then checks her heart and respiration with a stethoscope. Then it’s into the attached X-ray room.          

Checking the X-rays, the doctor announces, “the neck looks fine and is not a problem; however, there seems to be some kind of metallic density in her stomach. We’re going to have to scope her to see what it is.”           

 A fibre optic viewing tube is inserted into the crane’s mouth and gently pushed into her stomach as the vet watches its progress through an eyepiece. “Aha,” says the vet. “It looks like a coin, ingested during feeding.” Some visitor had probably tossed the coin into the bird’s compound then made a wish. But the wish was not all that lucky for the bird. “We will probably try to remove it, but not today though.”          

As the crane slowly starts to regain consciousness, her head and long neck squirms like a drunken snake and is quickly carried to the holding chamber. Moments later, she is standing on her own and preening her feathers.          

Next door to the clinic is l’Animalerie. “These are our ambassador animals,” explains Dr. MJ. “The creatures are non-aggressive here. The public can touch the animals and sometimes they visit local schools as part of our education program.”         

It is a bright, humid building about the size of a large garage, with a number of large cages and terrariums. The vet pulls an oversized toad out of a terrarium. “This creature is a South American, rococo toad named Dolores. She has an infection in one of her legs and hasn’t eaten in a week. We are treating it with antibiotics and hydro therapy, which means we spray a stream of water directly over the legs to stimulate the healing process; sort of like aqua therapy used for humans.”          

Feeling the toad’s body with caressing fingers, she presses on her belly to see if she can detect any lumps or growths. As soon as she does this, a stream of watery liquid shoots out of the bottom end of the toad. Then it blurbs out: rupp, rupp, rupp! “Hmmmm,” says a smiling Dr. MJ.             

The doctor opens Dolores’s mouth with the aid of an ink marker while explaining that the colour of this amphibian’s tongue should be a vibrant pink; but hers is whitish, not a good sign.“All wild animals are pretty good at masking sickness, because if they show signs of sickness they will become a quick meal for predators.”          

Next, it’s over to one of the cages that line the walls. As Dr. MJ approaches, a large, crow-sized bat starts climbing across the ceiling screen towards her while hanging upside down. The bat seems to have a definite crush on the vet as he comes right over to her as she approaches. “He likes us, he likes people,” she explains while opening the cage door. Seconds later, the furry-brown critter has hobbled over and clenches onto the hand of the doctor with his long, boney fingers.

It is an Indian flying fox bat named Bacardi. “He got his name from the bat on the label of the well-known rum and is one of the world’s largest bats. Bacardi had a skin infection on the wing that didn’t respond to treatment so we had to amputate part of the wing to keep it from spreading,” she says.          

The bat continually tries to lick at the wound with his gleaming, pink tongue. “Poor baby, I know it’s difficult,” says the vet while Dr. Garand attempts to attach a miniature-sized Elizabethan collar around his neck. The collar restricts the bat from licking the wound, which can slow down the healing process.  

Dr. MJ, the keepers and the technicians know the animals better than anyone.The keepers not only feed the animals and clean their residences, but they are usually the first to notice any irregularity in the animals’ health or character, which they report to the vet.           

It takes special skills and patience to be able to judge an animal’s character and body language, both of which are necessities when it comes to examining them. “They all have their different personalities,” explains the veterinarian, who has been at the zoo for 6-and-a-half-years.          

Her ability to communicate with the animals is reminiscent of Dr. Doolittle, the well-known children’s book. She explains that, “each language has its own tone, and there’s a very different sound and rhythm to a language – its musicality. A keeper at the Edmonton Zoo said that the tiger we lent them would respond differently depending on the language you spoke to it. It would respond more directly to French, as it was born and raised here at Granby. Some animals are bilingual, some are not.”          

After a short walk through the zoo grounds, Dr. MJ enters the quarters of the South American animals. In one of the large, glassed-off chambers, a two-toed sloth, golden agouti and white-faced saki watch closely as the doctor, the intern and a keeper enter their shared domicile.         

The golden agouti, which looks like a giant guinea pig with huge hind quarters, starts darting around the perimeter of the chambers, kicking up a cloud of dust as the vets make their way over to the sloth, which is resting calmly in the crotch of a small tree in a corner of the chamber. The inquisitive, white-faced saki threads its way through the branches of the artificial canopy with the grace of a trapeze artist, while closely following the trio of human intruders. It isn’t a shy creature.             

Upon seeing Dr.’s Garand and MJ approach, the slow moving sloth raises its head and spreads open its clawed feet. The sloth seems to know the routine. They scratch its head and behind its ears while looking at one of its eyes, which has an infection.The sloth, agouti and saki make up a strange host of bed fellows and the whole scene is rather cartoon-like and comical.                                 

In another building nearby, the vets and a keeper corner and hold a Southeast Asian muntjac deer. This animal is one of the smallest deer species in the world and stands about 50cm in height. “We’ve been giving the little deer antibiotics for a tooth abscess and monthly injections of a joint liquid for arthritis,” explains the doctor. The deer screams as it is given the injection by Dr. Garand, but seconds afterward, the deer saunters over to Dr. MJ and starts licking her hand.          

Next it’s over to the big cats’ winter quarters; a clean, bright facility with two large iron-barred enclosures. As soon as she enters the building, Boomer, a three-year-old African lion, comes over to the bars of his cell and starts nudging them with his face and bumping them with his shoulder, while pacing back and forth.           

The lion was acquired by the zoo in May 2008, after escaping from his Maniwaki, Quebec handler, who was babysitting the beast for his Ontario owner. It is estimated that around 500 exotic cats are kept as pets in Ontario, the only province where it is legal. The lion stops pacing to watch a maintenance person hook up a humidifier being installed in the facility, a slight distraction in this cat’s largely boring day.           

Just a handful of generations ago, the grandparents of this beast roamed the open plains of the Serengeti, where the lion is the king of all beasts. Only 3% of the nearly 1000 animals at the zoo were captured in the wild. The rest were captive-bred or exchanged in breeding programs with other well-established zoos.          

 In the cell next to Boomer is a black jaguar, a majestic looking beast with a beautiful, sleek black coat. Dr. MJ explains that the German shepherd-sized animal has had a problem with cracking on the pads of its feet, which can lead to an infection. Vaseline is applied to the paw pads, through the bars, to help restore moisture, but the installation of the humidifier should resolve the problem.    

The panther rubs its cheeks and nose against the cage while MJ uses her palm to stroke the cat’s face and whiskers. MJ and the keeper offer the cat a snack of small dried fish. “He likes his little fish treats,” says the doctor.           

Even though her regular work schedule is Monday to Friday, Dr. MJ is frequently called in on weekends for emergencies. When she leaves the zoo for the day, she says it’s not all that easy to leave her work behind. “Yes, I have dreams about my work, but I really don’t have to, as every day I realize that this is my dream job.          

Three days later, Dr. MJ is busily preparing a contraceptive vaccine for a 1400 kg hippopotamus. This will have to be administered by shooting the animal’s leg with a modern day blowgun. A 3” dart containing contraceptive is propelled from the end of a 5-foot-long metal tube by pressurized air. “I hope I can get her,” she says while squatting down and aiming the gun through the bars of the chamber.          

Dr. MJ pulls the trigger. The dart strikes just above the hippo’s front leg, into a fold of what looks like armour, but is actually thick skin. The unfazed hippo stands in the corner of the pen, occasionally turning her head to look at her mate and 4-year-old baby in a large swimming tank close to her pen.“It’s time do the blood test on one of the African elephants, then I have meetings for the rest of the day,” announces Dr. MJ.                  

There are two elephants at the zoo, housed in their huge winter quarters about the size of a large ice rink. This area is broken up into three inter-connected chambers. The elephants can be moved from one chamber to another, so their pens can be cleaned or they can be quarantined for examination and treatment.          

Toutoune, the 31-year-old elephant comes right over upon seeing Dr. MJ enter and extends her truck straight through the bars nuzzling her hair. “Hey Toutoune, I love you too,” confesses the vet. 

Keeper, Michel Jutras, puts a pile of sweet hay in front of the pachyderm while the vet starts drawing blood from behind one of its massive ears. The animal doesn’t bat an eye, but rolls the hay into small bundles with its trunk and puts them right into its mouth.           

Sarah, the 21-year-old elephant needs her feet checked and Dr. MJ and the keeper give her the same snack. She raises her rear leg onto a circular table, as if on cue, and they both look at the foot, checking it for cracking or other problems.           

Everything checks out with Sarah, and as the vet and the keeper start to leave the holding area, Sarah stretches her trunk out and playfully nudges Dr. MJ. “Oh you’d like a candy would you? She can smell my cherry lip balm. She loves sweets. All elephants have an incredible sweet tooth. I knew another pair of elephants that loved mint Tic Tacs.”          

The zoo vet heads off to her meetings knowing that her extended family has been taken care of as the elephants hoover up the last remnants of sweet hay. All is well at the zoo.




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