Throughout his career, Associate Professor Lorenzo Crosta had dealt with all types of exotic and zoo animals but birds are his real passion. By Frank Leggett
Growing up in Italy, A/Professor Lorenzo Crosta decided to become a veterinarian because he loved dogs. Then, during his third year at the University of Milan, he started breeding fancy pigeons. This humble pastime ignited a passion for birds in the student that would become a lifelong fascination, which culminated last year in his receipt of the presitigious TJ Lafeber Avian Practitioner of the Year.
“Thirty years ago, nobody was doing any avian medicine on a serious level,” recalls A/Professor Crosta, who completed his veterinary degree at the University of Milan in Italy. “I did my thesis in poultry sciences and avian pathology and graduated in 1989.”
His first job was as a practitioner in a mixed, small animal practice. The practice would see a fair number of exotic animals and this became A/ Professor Crosta’s area of responsibility. Of course, this also required plenty of extra study.
“When I was a kid, my parents used to send me to the UK during summer to learn English,” he recalls. “Those English lessons were invaluable as they enabled me to attend several conferences abroad. The first time I went to an Association of Avian Veterinarians conference, I was hooked. I became a mostly avian vet and 10 years later, I became the director of Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain. One of the major enticements was that they had the largest parrot collection of the world.”
From 2000 to 2005, A/Professor Crosta was veterinary director at Loro Parque. The 14-hectare zoo is not only home to their extensive parrot collection but also a wide variety of animals including large cats—jaguars, lions and tigers—along with otters, alligators and pirañas. The zoo also has a 1.2 million litre aquarium containing 20,000 aquatic species and plants, including marine mammals such as dolphins, sea lions and orca whales.
After his time at Loro Parque, A/Professor Crosta became a global wanderer, working as a consulting veterinarian at zoos and bird collections in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Chile and Brazil.
In 2009 he earned his PhD in veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Turin (Italy), defending a thesis on Psittacosis. In 2013, he was accredited by the Italian Federation of Veterinary Boards in Avian and Zoological Medicine and Surgery and Zoo Health Management. In 2015, he gained ESVPS General Practitioner Certification in exotic animal practice and most importantly, in 2016, he became a Diplomate of the European College of Zoological Medicine, holding the title of EBVS® European Veterinary Specialist in Zoo Health Management.
And in 2018, Australia beckoned. He took up the position of director of the Avian, Reptile and Exotic Pet Hospital at the University of Sydney.
“When I was working in Europe, I came across plenty of macropods, but they were all wallabies,” says A/Professor Crosta. “But working with koalas and wombats was very new to me. I found them fascinating.”
The job offer at the University of Sydney came at a time of great personal change for A/Professor Crosta. He had recently gone through a divorce and his ex-wife was a partner in their veterinary practice, Veterinari Montevecchia in Italy. The practice is also an official residency training centre for the European College of Zoological Medicine.
“I was frequently lecturing at the University of Milan and knew I could use my teaching skills at the University of Sydney,” he says. “I spoke with my new partner, who’s also a vet specialising in avian medicine, and we decided to move to Australia. Attitudes are different here compared to Europe and Latin America but the causes of disease and the interaction between animals and diseases are the same.”
The University of Sydney’s Avian, Reptile and Exotic Pet Hospital sees a huge variety of animals. There are a lot of exotic pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, reptiles, snakes and turtles. The vets also deal with a large number of pet birds and all types of wildlife.
“One thing is clear,” says A/Professor Crosta. “Being a zoo vet or an avian vet means you don’t specialise in one kind of surgery or technique. You basically have to be an all-rounder when dealing with these kinds of animals. Everybody in the practice is able to do the basics with all the exotic animals. Everybody also tends to develop one particular skill. I’m pretty well known for my work with recovery programs and for endoscopy with birds.”
A/Professor Crosta’s interest in birds has led to him being involved with some projects on a long-term basis. For the past 15 years, he has been the referral vet for the recovery programs of two endangered parrots, Spix’s macaw and the Lear macaw. He is also involved with the reintroduction program of the Mexican subspecies of the scarlet macaw and the recovery program of the Alagoas curassow in Brazil.
Not only has practising avian medicine seen A/Professor Crosta travel all over the world, he has taken the opportunity to teach and share his knowledge.
“When I do a consultation in a zoo, I organise meetings and teach the new veterinarians basic techniques in surgery and endoscopy,” he says. “I plan to do the same thing here in Australia. I have 30 years of experience that I’m keen to share.”
In 2019, A/Professor Crosta won the TJ Lafeber Avian Practitioner of the Year. This US-based award is named after Dr Ted Lafeber II who was one of the world’s foremost authorities on pet bird care. The Lafeber company manufactures a wide range of pet bird food and nutrition products. The award is presented to an outstanding practitioner who is advancing the quality of health care for companion birds. The finalists are nominated by colleagues and students from around the world.
“This was the third year I was among the five finalists,” he says. “Two years ago, my colleague from Germany, Dr Michael Lierz, won. Last year, the Australian, Dr Bob Donnelly, was the winner. I expected someone not from Europe, nor from Australia to win in 2019 but was thrilled and honoured when I found out it was me!”
In addition to his avian work, A/Professor Crosta has been a panel member of the European Food Safety Authority and twice been chair of the European Committee of the Association of Avian Veterinarians. He has also published several papers and book chapters in national and international journals.
One thing that A/Professor Crosta has noticed while working in Australia is that the tyranny of distance is still an issue. While our isolation has been largely responsible for the variety of species found right across the continent, it can make the sharing and discussion of information in academic circles difficult.
“It’s definitely easier to share information in Europe,” he says. “There’s a free exchange of ideas between Europe, the USA and Latin America. New York is just six hours’ flight from Italy. Brazil is 10 hours. Veterinarians from these regions often meet at conferences and exchange ideas and information. It’s a longer and more expensive exercise from Australia.
“I love Australia and I see a lot of interesting cases and animals but sometimes the approach to a problem can be a little troublesome. The thinking seems to be that we have been doing this for a long time and it works, so there’s no need to change anything. I would like to see a little more acceptance of new ideas, techniques and procedures, particularly when they seem promising.”
One thing that A/Professor Crosta is very excited about is the promise of a new vaccine for Psittacine circoviral disease, commonly known as beak and feather disease. The disease is potentially fatal for some species of parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets. After 20 years of research, promising results have been seen by Australian scientists and hopefully the vaccine will soon be widely available.
After a lifetime healing all manner of avian patients, there are a few birds with which A/Professor Crosta feels a special connection. Through the recovery program, he’s very linked to Spix’s macaw but it’s penguins that really fascinate him.
“I love working with penguins,” he says. “I even love the technology that is required to keep their environment healthy in zoos. However, if I was to pick my favourite bird, it would be the kea of New Zealand. They are incredibly intelligent and anyone who has worked with them has unbelievable stories to tell. The only other species that comes close to the intelligence of the kea is the striated caracara, a South American bird of prey. They are both truly beautiful creatures.”
While A/Professor Crosta is yet to have much experience with our national bird, the emu, he has managed to have extensive interaction with ostriches.
“There was a big market for ostriches in Southern Europe a few years ago,” he says. “People were running ostrich farms and the ostrich is a surprisingly delicate bird. I dealt with a lot of very sick ostriches.”
With his role at the University of Sydney ongoing for the next two years, A/Professor Crosta intends to immerse himself in exotic animal and avian work.
“My contract is until mid-2021 with the opportunity to renew for a further three years,” he says. “So far, I’ve really enjoyed my time there and the university seems to like what I do. I will likely stay until 2024 and then reassess my options. There’s still a lot of birds and a lot of countries to explore.”