Veterinary medicine is challenging, but it becomes exponentially more so when the animals involved can kill you. Treating elephants, rhinos and gorillas in the wild makes the task harder still, but it doesn't prevent intrepid veterinarians from bringing state-of-the art technology to the most remote places on Earth.
PBS's three-part series "Operation Wild," premiering July 1, follows these animal healers around the globe as they save sick and injured creatures, from an elephant in Laos with a broken leg to birds caught in kite strings after a festival in India.
The project was an enormous international undertaking that was three years in the making. "From the moment we went into production, a team of researchers compiled a massive list of zoos, sanctuaries, animal reserves and conservation organizations. These were all asked that if one of their animals got sick could they phone the vet first and us second. We were soon receiving a large amount of calls about different cases around the world," says producer Serena Davies.
"We also then got to know many of the vets working in this kind of animal medicine and they would tell us about interesting cases they had coming up. We wanted to film so many of the cases but had to be selective in order to get the right variety of both animals and veterinary procedures We wanted to make sure we delivered a varied experience for the audience that showed the many different sides of big animal medicine ," she explains.
"Some of the cases we featured were planned procedures but we were also after cases of emergency care and getting access to these stories was one of the big challenges," Davies continues. "I got used to getting calls at all hours with cases coming in. One example was a giraffe caught in a snare in South Africa. I got the call at six in the morning and 12 hours later I was on the reserve filming the exhilarating capture of the giraffe and the successful removal of the snare. As well as the main U.K.-based crew who shot most of the series, we established a network of local fixers and crew who made this kind of quick turnaround filming possible."
Of all the stories in the series, several stand out to Davies, including Thongkhoun the elephant and Thandi, a South African rhino who had a horn amputated by poachers. "What was harder than perhaps we expected was the intensity of the experience, as many of the cases were very emotional. The story of Shufai the gorilla in Cameroon who had a gunshot wound to the arm was incredibly moving and made all the more so because of the proximity between us and the great apes," she says, calling it "a tragic but ultimately uplifting story."
Going into the project, "we wanted to bring alive the work of amazing vets around the world and to show the scale and ambition of what they try to achieve. We wanted to immerse the audience in the extraordinary world of big animal medicine," says Davies. "It was a great privilege to film with some amazing conservation organizations, one highlight being filming increasingly rare orangutans in Borneo. In a world where animals are increasingly under threat, there are extraordinary efforts being made by some people to save and look after them."
One of those people is Dr. Will Thomas, a British veterinarian. "I became involved with Operation Wild when I heard the production team was searching for large animal surgeries just at the time we were preparing to deal with Thongkhoun's case. I believe that it's imperative that conservationist and veterinary surgeons working with endangered species provide as much exposure as possible to the plight of the wild — it's not one person but a movement that will save them," he says.
"While we weren't performing cutting-edge techniques, it was a monumental challenge in terms of logistics, scale and equipment to get the care that was needed to Thongkhoun. When faced with a 3,500-kilogram-plus (roughly 7,716 pounds) male elephant with a bullet in his leg it's sometimes difficult to see a positive ending, especially when the reason for him being shot was aggression towards a local village! In the end, Thongkhoun turned out to be both stoic and gentle, completely accepting of everything we did to help him. I am happy to be able to say that he is at 100 percent health: his leg has completely healed without any further issues. It's cases like this that make my job worthwhile. Not only did his journey heal his health, it inspired the local people to rally together and express their support for conserving elephants in Laos."
Dr. Thomas didn't start out as a wild animal vet. "I graduated from the University of Bristol in the U.K. as a veterinary surgeon and initially worked in the equine world, but my passion has always been with wild animals. The research and experience of veterinarians all over the world working with domestic animals is fundamental to our ability to care for wild animals — it's amazing how similar a horse is to an elephant!" he points out. But his chosen specialty comes with unique demands.
"Working with wild animals in undeveloped countries is truly challenging: not only are we working with often irreplaceable animals that are so important to conservation, but from a clinical perspective we often have limited equipment and become inventors as well as vets. It's also deeply rewarding on both a conservation level to contribute to the survival of a threatened species as well as an individual level to support and heal these majestic animals," he says, explaining that he initially became interested in wild animal medicine while he was still an undergraduate travelling around Asia.
"Through a combination of luck and determination, I was fortunate to become involved with grass-roots projects involving rehabilitation of monkeys and Asiatic bears in the remote jungles of Laos. These projects had no veterinarian and seeing the vast benefit that would bring inspired me to complete my studies and then seek out a niche where I could make a meaningful impact. Working in this field and part of the world means everyday is an adventure," he says, although he adds, "Sometimes I wish I had a desk job when I'm stuck in monsoon rain on the side of a mountain searching for an elephant!"
In his work in Asia, Thomas has experienced many difficult cases, "not all of them with positive endings. While all cases are challenging for different reasons, I would say that in addition to Thongkhoun, an experience amputating the arm of an Asiatic black bear that was caught in a hunter's trap pushed me both emotional and clinically."
Currently based in Vietnam, he operates Animal Doctors International clinics both there and in Laos "which provide much of the medicine and equipment I so desperately needed when I first started working in this field. Myself and my team of international veterinary surgeons accept cases from all over Southeast Asia and often travel to support projects and teams where veterinary care is needed," he says.
He does acknowledge the danger inherent in this kind of veterinary work. "I've had close calls: struck at by a snake, chased by an elephant and stepped on by a buffalo, but so far I'm still in once piece," says Thomas. "Luckily, the worst injury I've received was a bite from a pet dog!"
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