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In a job that many of her peers would find daunting, senior veterinarian at WA Wildlife, Dr Meg Rodgers, relishes the many and varied challenges she faces every day treating injured and sick wildlife. By Kathy Graham
Meg Rodgers’ passion for wildlife took root at a young age. “As a young person, I was the go-to person in the neighbourhood that would take all of the little birds and critters that people had found,” she recalls. “I just became known as that person in the community.
But as she continues: “It became quite obvious to me that there were not a lot of vets around that were both able and willing to assist with these animals. I recognised even then the deficit of wildlife vets in the industry in WA.”
So Rodgers set her sights on a veterinary science degree at Murdoch University, resolving to be a voice for wildlife welfare and increase veterinary resources for wildlife in WA.
Today, Dr Meg Rodgers is in her element at Native ARC (now trading as WA Wildlife) in Perth’s southern suburbs. Having volunteered with the organisation since she finished high school, Dr Rodgers is a true embodiment of her childhood aspiration. Now the senior veterinarian at the WA wildlife hospital (the first wildlife veterinary hospital in WA), Dr Rodgers has her work cut out managing complex medical cases and performing a wide range of surgeries—“a unique situation”, she says. “Not many vets have the opportunity to see the whole process of wildlife rehabilitation from rescue to release.”
The state-of-the-art trauma hospital—which commenced operations in March and is equipped with an intensive care unit, surgery suite, recovery wards, radiology equipment, even a decontamination room—has around 4000 admissions every year, whether from vet clinics, other less-resourced wildlife care groups or members of the public. “We can have anywhere from 10 to 60 animals a day coming through,” says Dr Rodgers, adding that this number tends to vary with the seasons. Patients range from tiny honeyeaters to large kangaroos and injuries and illnesses are equally variable, the bulk as a result of human activity. “A lot of these animals come in with fishing line entanglements or they’ve been hit by cars. Quite a few are attacked by dogs and cats, or are compromised and displaced due to habitat loss from land clearing.”
Dr Rodgers and her team perform all sorts of procedures—many quite complex due to the fact their animal patients come in every shape, size and type and aren’t domesticated. “There are so many different species that we treat here, and you have to work out a treatment plan that caters to each individual patient’s needs,” explains Dr Rodgers. “A water bird, for instance, will need different management and care to that of an emu or an amphibian. Then there’s the issue that every time you interact with that patient, you’re causing them stress because these patients aren’t used to having humans around.”
But even more crucially, with wildlife medicine in Australia still in its infancy, Dr Rodgers and her team are essentially pioneering a lot of new and untried techniques.
“In wildlife medicine, there are some textbooks, but a lot of it is just using bits and pieces of knowledge from different areas of medicine and different disciplines and trying to fit it together to achieve the best outcome for the patient that is presented to you.”
That is assuming such ‘knowledge’ is even available.
Consider Pete the emu chick. Not more than a week old, he’d been flown in by staff at a mine site where he’d been found caught in a fence, with some visibly nasty wounds down the inside of his leg. After doing some X-rays, Dr Rodgers also diagnosed a dislocated hip. Having never fixed a dislocated hip in an emu before, she scoured the internet for clues as well as talked to other vets and specialists, but to no avail. “These are bipedal ground-dwelling animals, they’ve only got two legs and if they can’t use one of them to walk, there’s not much that can be done,” Dr Rodgers explains.
“So, of course, I contacted a few clincs and zoos in Australia, and I searched a lot of the databases trying to find publications or any information on how to repair dislocated hips in ratites and what the outcomes were from that. I just couldn’t find anything. A lot of the people I spoke to just didn’t know, they couldn’t contribute because a lot of the time these animals are euthanised.”
In the end, Dr Rodgers decided the best treatment was to put Pete in a Spica splint for a few weeks, during which time he survived on IV fluids and tube feeds when Dr Rodgers wasn’t trying to coax him with mealworms to eat unaided. Eventually, he started walking and “so we popped his hip into place, put the Spica splint on and then I got to watch this little emu grow up”. The happy ending is that today Pete who is “very friendly” is officially registered as one of the resident animals at WA Wildlife.
In this line of work, both successes and failures are deemed learning opportunities, insists Dr Rodgers, “We need to gain as much experience as we can and then share that experience with others so that everyone is on the same page and understands what works and what doesn’t”.
And yes, Dr Rodgers feels like she’s always learning. “You rarely see exactly the same situation twice. It’s very hard to be an expert in this field because there’s so much information that you need to be able to take in across a broad range of species, which varies depending on location. Everybody’s experiences are different. Though it is getting better, there’s not a huge amount of literature. That’s why the industry is so collaborative and why it needs to be collaborative.”
Dr Rodgers juggles her work at the WA Wildlife with a part-time job as an associate veterinarian at Melville Animal Hospital, where she sees “regular cats and dogs, bunny rabbits and guinea pigs and the odd chicken”. Dr Rodgers says that these animals are more compliant to work with because they’re used to human interaction, plus there’s standardised tests and textbooks for everything. However, general practice veterinary medicine still presents challenges that you don’t necessarily see in wildlife medicine.
“So, I do enjoy working in both disciplines,” she adds. “Both have their challenges and benefits. I suppose I just find the wildlife side a bit more innovative because you can just give things a go and you are, quite often, the only option, so you just have to try things and adapt as needed. I find that very freeing and quite exciting”.
And daunting? “I suppose what I find most daunting is not so much the procedures themselves but the many unknowns involved in decision-making—is it in the best interest of the animal to put it through an invasive procedure? You have to have the right balance of sensible and crazy to do a job like this because there are a lot of factors that need to be considered.”
Why more vets don’t choose to specialise in wildlife care is mainly because it’s so under-resourced, but Dr Rodgers suspects the nature of the job is also a factor. “It definitely takes someone who is willing to try things outside of the box, but also to accept that euthanasia is an acceptable outcome. It takes ongoing training and experience to feel confident in handling a lot of the animals and working without textbooks to back you up, and veterinary training in wildlife is sadly often limited in veterinary schools. Perhaps a lot of people have anxieties around wildlife work because of this, but once that barrier is broken it is a very exciting area of veterinary medicine to become involved in.
“I am very excited to be a part of the WA Wildlife Hospital team as their vision is to become leaders in wildlife medicine and rehabilitation.”