A Walk on the Wild Side at Tufts Veterinary School

On a blustery day in mid-December, TWiV co-host Vincent Racaniello and I, along with friend-of-the-show Islam Hussein, visited the picturesque campus of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, MA. Our primary job there was to record an episode of TWiV in front of a live audience, featuring Tufts researcher Jon Runstadler and members of his lab. You can check out that episode now on the TWiV site. Before the recording session, though, we got to tour New England’s only veterinary school, which occupies the former site of a state mental hospital.

While the fistulated cow, athletic treatment center (think racehorses), and abandoned 19th century psychiatric dormitories were all interesting in their own ways, the highlight of the tour was the school’s wildlife clinic. The small, purpose-built facility sits amid a cluster of huge, well-ventilated wooden structures resembling tobacco barns. As we later learned, these are outdoor flight cages, where birds recovering from various injuries can take wing without encountering the hazards of the wider world.

In the airy lobby, we met Maureen Murray, Assistant Director of the clinic. A compact, soft-spoken woman, Murray exudes the quiet competence of someone accustomed to restoring order from chaos. She explained the mission of the clinic, which accepts injured wild animals brought in from across the state. As she spoke, it occurred to me that she’s exactly the kind of person I would want bandaging my wing if I’d been hit by a car.

The facility resembles a scaled-down hospital emergency department, but with the distinct dander-and-disinfectant smell of a veterinarian’s office. A large screen lists the current cases, with a system of abbreviations similar to those used by birders: BAOW for Barred Owl, CAGO for Canada Goose, and so on. Each line carries a brief description of the patient’s chief complaint. Injuries from automotive encounters and dog maulings predominate.

This is a teaching hospital. The small pathology lab features a microscope with multiple binocular heads, so groups of students can view specimens together. While we were there, one veterinarian in training was studying at a desk in the hall; veterinary students are always studying. Meanwhile, in a radiology suite about the size of a modest bedroom, several staffers and trainees gathered around an Eastern cottontail rabbit recently rescued from a family dog’s jaws, X-raying its hindquarters to assess the damage.

Yes, they repair broken bunnies.

Their generosity even extends to invasive species, at least sometimes. In a concrete-floored waterfowl recovery room with a built-in wading pool, a mute swan eyed us imperiously while paddling back and forth. Murray said that once it recovered, it would be sent to a park near where it had been found.

That raised the tricky subject of discharging patients. To limit the spread of disease and minimize interference in local ecology, the clinic takes pains to send animals back to the areas where they originated. Often, that means dragooning students who are heading somewhere for other reasons into playing zoological chauffeur. You’re visiting your friends on the Cape? Here, take this menagerie with you and release them when you get there. I imagine veterinarians’ cars smell a lot like their offices.

Tracking and containment procedures came up again as we visited the reptile unit, a space barely big enough to accomodate Murray and her three guests among a stack of terraria. We don’t know why these turtles crossed the road, but some of them were egg-bearing females. Eggs laid in the clinic, or recovered from patients who didn’t make it, get incubated and hatched there. A container of terrapin hatchlings, and another of baby snapping turtles, stood next to each other on a shelf. Each litter gets its own tray. In Spring, they’ll be released near where their mothers were found.

In the bird ward, staffers were just corralling a Canada goose back into his cage when we arrived. He had apparently imprinted on people, and was not happy about being treated like an animal. Murray said he would likely be released to a public park rather than a wilder environment, as he wouldn’t fit in with a regular flock.

Many of the other patients in this room were barred owls, a species that’s been coming in a lot this year as a result of a domino chain of ecological events. Two years ago New England experienced a mast year for oaks. The glut of acorns caused a boom in the rodent population, which echoed across their predators. While all raptors benefited, night-hunting barred owls are the ones most likely to encounter night-driving humans, whose combination of extraordinary ground speed, steel-reinforced bumpers, and daylight adapted vision leads to poor outcomes for the owls.

Getting an injured raptor airborne again takes awhile. After repairing the animals’ fractures, the veterinarians move the birds into room-sized outdoor cages where they can begin flexing their wings. From there, they go to the barn-like structures we saw on the way in. Once they’ve remastered flight, they get a ride back to their home neighborhoods for release, hopefully with a better appreciation of the dangers of the road.

A byproduct of all this wildlife treatment is a huge collection of fluid and tissue samples from species across the state. Murray knew we were virologists, and was keen to emphasize that the clinic is happy to share these specimens with scientists who want to study them. If your research could benefit from a historical trove of geographically coded, carefully stored raccoon blood, for example, give her a call.

The visit left me with a new appreciation of the idealistic animal lovers who work in places like the wildlife clinic. Their jobs are largely thankless. Their patients are either terrified of them or want to kill them, their funding is meager, and the job is never done. And yet they persist, repairing smashed and sick animals and releasing them back to a world that will probably just run them over again. But in the meantime, they’ve lessened the total pain in the world, and increased the total joy, even if the change is fleeting. That’s beautiful.

It also inspired me to drive carefully on the way home.