NEWPORT NEWS — Anything can throw off a wildlife veterinarian’s carefully planned day — like, say, a toad with a possible prolapsed cloaca, a critical part of the digestive tract.
After examining the amphibian, Brianne Phillips prescribed medications for intestinal parasites and pain. As lead veterinarian at the Virginia Living Museum, Phillips oversees the care of some 600 animals.
The mind-boggling list of species includes fish, turtles, ducks, otters, racoons, bald eagles, vultures, foxes, coyotes, bobcats and wolves.
While museum animals can’t survive in the wild because of injury, illness or other factors, they are not domesticated or, in most cases, used to human handling.
Phillips’ patients include a groundhog with heart disease, a coyote with seasonal allergies, fish with skin lesions, aging birds with cataracts and a variety of young creatures that need to build strength before moving into public exhibits.
To complicate matters, many of them instinctively won’t display obvious symptoms until they are very sick.
“They wouldn’t survive in the wild if they showed signs of illness,” Phillips says. “So, we have to watch them for even the slightest changes, such as seeming just a little more lethargic or not finishing their entire meals. Our most important tool is observation.”
Phillips arrived at the VLM last fall, joining Linda Addison, a licensed veterinary technician who has been at the museum for 11 years. The two have help from the entire animal care staff and a few local veterinary specialists, including a cardiologist and an ophthalmologist with a particular interest in birds.
The VLM clinic, based inside the planetarium building, has grown astronomically during Addison’s tenure.
“At first, all I had was a little light and a refrigerator,” she recalls. “Then we got our first microscope, and we just kept building.”
The inventory now includes an anesthesia monitoring machine, a radiology unit and an electronic medical records system.
“Thankfully, we get a lot of equipment and support from our local vets,” Addison says.
Phillips is on call 24/7. Along with annual physicals, she schedules entrance exams for animals transferred from a wildlife rehabilitation facility or another zoo or aquarium.
New arrivals are quarantined for 30 days, to ensure they’re healthy.
“We also want to get to know each one of them better,” Phillips adds.
Emergencies can include traumatic wounds and difficulty breathing; in Phillips’ third week at work, a red fox developed urinary tract stones.
On a recent day, she tended to a small wing wound on a 500-gram male wood duck, which wiggled and kicked in Addison’s gloved hands. With her next patient, a female duck with foot lesions, Phillips gently dabbed on a substance to encourage skin cell growth.
Not surprisingly, wildlife vets have to take careful safety precautions. Phillips, who has never been injured by an animal, often is separated from her patients by enclosures.
If they need a full physical or major procedure, she relies on anesthesia or heavy sedation. Animal care staff also can give needed medication by injecting it into food items.
While wildlife used in educational programs are more easily handled, staff has trained others to participate in their own care to reduce stress.
The river otters, for example, will stand up and display their paws and teeth for inspection, while certain birds will perch on command.
Phillips, a biology major in college, gravitated to wildlife during a summer internship at an aquarium.
After veterinary school, she completed a zoological medicine residency at North Carolina State. Other than a certain fondness for ducks, she loves all animals in her care equally.
The VLM has ongoing fundraising efforts to boost its veterinary program — such as an Earth Day sale of canvasses “painted” by animals during play activities — as part of its mission to teach visitors to better understand and protect Virginia’s native species.
“This career is very challenging, with lots of ups and downs,” Phillips says. “There’s still so much we don’t know about providing the best care for some of these species. I never stop learning. And I try to never take for granted that I get to work with these amazing animals every day.”