Got a sick puppy or injured kitty? Don't call Dr. Susan Kelleher. The Deerfield Beach, Florida, veterinarian doesn't treat dogs and cats, but all other creatures great and small that fly, crawl and swim are welcome. Her practice is the subject of the Nat Geo Wild series "Dr. K's Animal ER," premiering Oct. 4, which follows Kelleher and her associates as they handle some tricky cases.
"It is more difficult. You really have to be tuned in," she says of working with exotic animals. "They're so delicate and they hide their symptoms of illness. Something might sound simple on the phone, but it’s not simple. A very subtle change in behavior can be a sign of very grave illness. They all have different anatomies, different 'normals.' It's a constant challenge."
In the six-episode series, "You're going to see us do major surgery on a large tortoise after she had a blood transfusion from my tortoise, Durda. You're going to see me spay a rather large potbellied pig and a spay on a tiny lizard," Kelleher says. She's been a vet for 18 years, specializing in exotics for the last 15. She traces her love of unusual pets to her childhood in suburban Buffalo, New York.
"I always had unusual pets. I had a pet chicken that rode on my shoulder as I delivered the Buffalo Evening News. I had rabbits, snakes and ducks that would swim in the swimming pool. When I was a teenager, I volunteered at the Buffalo Zoo and worked one on one with the bird keepers. I've always been a bird watcher. I was always outside catching frogs," recalls Kelleher, whose current menagerie includes two black Lab-golden retrievers, an orange cat, a blue-and-gold macaw, two box turtles and the aforementioned 100-pound African tortoise. "I love my dogs and cats, but the exotics just take it up a notch for me. It's fascinating physiology, anatomy."
When she encounters an animal she hasn't treated before, such as a tarantula, she doesn’t turn it away. "When I don't know how, I research or talk to other veterinarians and apply basic principles. I've spayed a fish. I've treated a praying mantis, alligators, sharks. I've put a pacemaker in a ferret. I've treated other invertebrates, crayfish. I built a fish anesthesia machine with parts from Home Depot."
For Kelleher, it wasn't a matter of choosing to be a vet. It was always a given. "It's not what I do, it's who I am. I couldn't do anything else. It's in my DNA. It wasn't a choice." She prides herself on her thorough workups. “There are so many things you can learn from a very meticulous physical exam and the history — what they've been feeding, what to suspect, and then we do tests.”
Kelleher, who's married and has a son and two daughters, says that her youngest, 7-year-old Claire, wants to be a vet and helps out in the clinic. Balancing work and family, who are seen in the show, is a challenge Kelleher faces by meditating and taking her dogs for a walk. "I try to stay in the moment. I can only take care of today. If I get too wound up over bills and how I'm going to do this or that, it makes me crazy," she says.
In the video below, watch Kelleher and her team treat a woman's pet snake.
Discovered by producers via the clinic's website, she hesitated at first to do the show. "I was concerned about how it would be representing the animals we love and care for, in a respectful, careful way," she explains, but she was reassured by producers.
The series doesn’t shy away from depicting reality, however. "Every veterinarian loses patients," she says. "The devastating part is when you put your heart and soul into a case and it dies. I've known some of these owners for 18 years, the animal's whole life span. I see them cradle to grave. I knew the owner when they adopted the animal and when I put them to sleep or it died naturally. It’s hard. You have to be able to compartmentalize, but it's not easy."
Conversely, the best part of Kelleher's job is "really making a difference in an animal's life. Every day is the first day in the rest of your pet's life, and I really take that seriously. The rewarding part is turning situations around.” She’s a big believer in preventative care, pointing out, “You take your children every year for a well visit. Doctors aren’t just for the sick."
She feels education is particularly important for owners of exotics, preferably before they take the pet home. "We have pre-pet counseling appointments, we do a lot of community outreach, give people information packets and put it on our website. We emphasize adopting, not shopping. I have had families come in, 'We're thinking of getting a bird, a cockatoo.' So I ask, 'Do you live in an apartment of a single-family home? They're kind of noisy. Maybe you want to think of something else.' Or they want a sugar gilder. 'They're nocturnal, they have a smell and this is their diet.' It's refreshing when I get an educated client come in before they get the pet because there's a lot of misinformation on the Internet."
In the video below, Kelleher uses a little ingenuity to help make a feathered patient more comfortable.
That's especially problematic when you're dealing with wild animals that probably shouldn't be in captivity. "The message I really want to get out to people on this show is that these animals with wild instincts and wild needs are living in a relatively unnatural environment. I don't necessarily recommend monkeys as pets," Kelleher says, noting that some people obtain their animals illegally. "But I do take care of them. They're here and somebody needs to take care of them and speak for them."
She emphasizes the importance of feeding exotics as natural a diet as possible and spaying and neutering them. "We take a tremendous amount of time to educate people about the proper food, need for fresh air, sunshine, friends, foraging, toys, proper training, positive reinforcement training, and litter box habits. If they're going to be in captivity, we want them to live the best lives they can."
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