Dr. Jay Kumaran walks into the park office to find several volunteers sporting long faces. They have been awaiting his arrival, his fourth visit over the past two months. In early June he came to meet, for the first time, a tiny female bear confiscated for the second time by state wildlife officials from private owners. Though he determined she is partially blind, has many teeth missing, and suffered a broken foot that healed crooked and left her limping, he finds the bear otherwise to be in good health.
“Doc”, as Dr. Kumaran is fondly referred to by the sanctuary’s staff and many others, isn’t here for the little bear today, though he will check in on her, too. He will also stop in to see Coby, a 30-year-old chimpanzee. Doc recently diagnosed a possible urinary tract infection based on observations from the animal’s keepers. The ape is a former performer from Hollywood. During today’s follow-up Doc notes Coby seems to be responding well to antibiotics and appears to be on the rebound.
Today’s visit is specifically arranged so Doc can help Cody, a 13-year-old mountain lion. Confiscated by state wildlife officials from a man’s basement in 2007, Cody has never been able to enjoy climbing in the spacious outdoor habitat Black Pine constructed for him. Malnutrition over many years while kept as a pet have led to severe arthritis and kidney disease. They have finally taken such a toll that Cody hasn’t been able to stand or walk for the past few days. It is time to allow Cody a peaceful end to his suffering. Doc is here to lead the team through the difficult process of letting go.
Patrice, Doc’s wife, is also his veterinary technician. When she arrives at the office she’s carrying a box of syringes and a cooler packed with chemicals that will first tranquilize, and then euthanize the ailing mountain lion. Cody will be at peace soon. The Kumarans, and many other compassionate sanctuary volunteers, know he had a good quality of life for more than two years at Black Pine thanks to their combined efforts. They come together again today in support of the park’s non-profit mission to provide permanent refuge to exotic animals in need and to educate others about the often harsh realities of the ever-growing exotic pet trade.
The Kumaran’s visits to Black Pine aren’t always fun or particularly easy, but they are ultimately rewarding. Doc and Patrice have been routinely making the 40 minute commute from Fort Wayne to Albion in northeastern Indiana since early 2006 to oversee and provide veterinary care to more than 85 displaced exotic pets and retired performers. What they receive in return for volunteering their time and professional services is the satisfaction of knowing they make a difference in the lives of animals that might otherwise miss out on their second chance at life. Their efforts have been widely praised within the community and they’ve made new friends and met new clients as a result.
“It was very clear from the first time we met Doc and Patrice at their clinic in Fort Wayne they were extraordinary and sincere in their interest in helping us,” says Lori Gagen, a long-time member of Black Pine’s senior volunteer staff, now the park’s executive director. “We had sent out a letter to all the veterinarians in the area seeking to find someone willing to help oversee our veterinary care program. Doc responded quickly and has never let us down!”
What the staff and Board of Directors at Black Pine didn’t anticipate was the level at which the Kumarans would offer their support. In addition to donating their professional services, time, and discounting all the needed veterinary supplies for more than three years, they pledged in late 2006 to fund and help furnish a veterinary clinic at the park. The clinic, when complete, will enhance large animal care and, the Kumarans hope, encourage more veterinarians to volunteer their services. Construction will begin just as soon as the little bear rescued in June can be relocated to a permanent habitat, thereby making space for the clinic.
“By having an on-site veterinary clinic it will make it possible and easier to do routine physicals and needed surgical procedures, especially for the larger animals that are so difficult to transport,” explains Dr. Kumaran. In the past the park’s staff has had to find other veterinary hospitals that can service large animals needing surgery, then transport lions and tigers to their location.
"Being able to reduce, if not totally eliminate, the stress for the animal is a big plus in their care and recovery after sedation," says Dr. Kumaran. The Kumarans are donating an x-ray machine and surgical equipment for the new clinic. A heavy-duty hydraulic lift table that will be installed for surgeries has been also donated by a local heavy-equipment manufacturer. "The two greatest difficulties in treating these animals has been the need to transport them, and finding facilities that will accommodate the size of the large cats and bears,” Kumaran continued. “Once the clinic is completed we won't have those logistics to worry about."
Black Pine is excited about the future of the park’s veterinary care program with all the Kumarans have contributed. This summer they learned, however, the Kumarans won’t be around to continue overseeing the healthcare of the animals at Black Pine. Doc and Patrice recently merged their veterinary practice with another and in doing so became semi-retired. They are planning for full retirement and relocation to Arizona as soon as they tie up loose ends in Fort Wayne. Black Pine knows the organization will have some big shoes to fill when Doc and Patrice move, and hope other area veterinarians will be willing to volunteer to help fill that gap.
“We don’t really expect to find another Doc and Patrice. They were unique in their combined experience and extraordinary kindness. We do hope, however, to build relationships with other veterinarians in the region who will be willing to help in one way or another. It may take multiple people, but we hope we can continue providing excellent care without breaking the bank,” explained Gagen. “Most people who volunteer at Black Pine find it can be addictive, but in a good way. There is nothing more rewarding for someone who loves animals than seeing them given a second chance, and knowing they played an integral part in making that possible.”
Veterinarians in companion animal practices may hesitate to answer Black Pine’s call for help, but Dr. Kumaran encourages them not to underestimate their abilities. He would like for his colleagues to know that there isn't a lot of time involved in caring for all of these animals. "I spend anywhere from 2-8 hours on average each month at Black Pine, depending on if an animal is ill. Mostly it's an hour or so walking through and observing each of them, and getting reports from the staff,” he explains.
The volunteers at Black Pine come from varied backgrounds, including pre-vet students, biology majors, animal husbandry majors, lab techs, and community members with no professional experience, but with a love for animals and willingness to take directions and lend a hand where they can. Dr. Kumaran and consulting veterinarians who work with other rescue organizations are usually just a phone call or e-mail away. "If you're looking for a challenge beyond the everyday routine of regular practice, I would encourage you to at least come out and spend some time at Black Pine. The small amount of time you'll spend will be rewarded ten-fold when you can watch a rescued animal recover from neglect and blossom into the creature it was meant to be," urges Kumaran.
Doc would like to see more veterinarians across the country become involved with non-profit organizations like Black Pine. The number of displaced exotic animals is skyrocketing, and rehab/rescue facilities in every state are in need of professional veterinary care for the animals. The need for hands on or on-site care is minimal, but when the need is there it is often urgent. Kumaran points out, “these facilities need to know that they have someone they can call on when they have an ill or injured animal.”
Doc encourages his colleagues to remember that a big part of their training is cross-species. “Besides,” he says, "a cat is still a cat, even if it weighs a few hundred pounds!" In the future, Dr. Kumaran would like to see a list of veterinarians willing to help these kinds of animals and facilities compiled so that they can network with each other.
“According to our research there are over 400 exotic animal sanctuaries across the country,” concludes Gagen. “The exotic pet trade is estimated conservatively as a $15 billion dollar-a-year industry in the U.S. with over 600 million animals crossing into our borders every year. Black Pine alone is asked to take over 150 non-domestic animals every year from private owners. There is no question veterinary services are needed in this arena. We really hope Doc and Patrice can be seen as role models and serve as inspiration for other veterinarians to step up and help. There is nothing more rewarding and meaningful they can do for animals!