The patient lay quietly, ready for surgery. A general anesthesia had done its work. In the waiting room a young woman sat anxiously while the minutes ticked away. At last a door opened and a man wearing a surgical gown spoke to her.
"Everything is fine," he said. "I set the broken bone. Your friend will come through in good shape."
This scene, which might have occurred in any American hospital, took place in rather a different setting: the office of a doctor of veterinary medicine. The patient was a parakeet and the Lilliputian operation had been conducted with all the skill of modern medical science. That such delicate surgery would even be attempted is an indication of the dedication and versatility of today's animal doctor.
The modern veterinarian has great need of both these virtues. Our pet population, increasing rapidly, already exceeds 76 million. And American families are not acquiring just cats, canines and canaries. All kinds of creatures are joining the domestic menage.
Household pets now in favor include tropical birds, monkeys, mice, hamsters, skunks (usually deodorized), rabbits and an occasional ocelot. Some people even like snakes. Students at an Eastern college recently brought a ten-foot boa constrictor back to school with them, an action not generally appreciated by their classmates.
The veterinarian may be called upon to treat any of these creatures, as well as run-of-the-kennel dog and cat patients. Intuition, understanding and common sense count as much as education and experience.
One day the veterinarian may be concerned with a parakeet's wing, the next with something considerably larger. Dr. Charles Gandel, veterinarian for New York's Bronx Zoo, is accustomed to dealing with animals that range from the minute to the mammoth. A recent patient of his was a five-ton elephant that had stepped on a broken bottle. Surgery was required, and while the elephant's keeper persuaded the animal to raise its foot, Dr. Gandel did his duty. "Performing in the shadow of an elephant's foot is not my idea of the ideal working environment," says the doctor, "but it's all in a day's work."
Following the surgery, Dr. Gandel resumed his treatment of patients in the zoo's hospital. Among them: a humming- bird whose weight was slightly less than one ounce.
At least a dozen other veterinarians are full time employes of zoos, and a few others work for race tracks and circuses. Most of this nation's 22,000 veterinarians, however, are engaged in private practice where wounded pachyderms are few and far between. The remainder work for the government, serve as officers in the armed forces (800 on active duty) and engage in research, teaching and commercial activities.
In addition to caring for a burgeoning pet population, U. S. veterinarians look after the animals that labor and produce food for man—an estimated 600 million cattle, horses, hogs, sheep, mules and poultry. They help prevent the incidence and spread of illness and advise the farmer or rancher how to get the most out of his animals.
Each year, for example, animal doctors in this country inspect millions of pounds of meat, check more than 34 million dairy animals, administer programs in formal public health and research, supervise and produce biological products and drugs, regulate import-export health requirements, and help run the intrastate and interstate traffic of animals.
Right now U. S. veterinarians are conducting about a thousand research projects on animal diseases. Because of past projects such as these, often carried on in conjunction with medical doctors, most of the animal diseases known to affect man no longer pose a serious threat to the human race.
Animal epidemics that once ravaged livestock and poultry have practically been eliminated in many parts of the world. People who once went hungry are now being fed by animals made healthy and kept healthy by veterinary medicine. Moreover, medicine and surgical techniques used on animals often prove invaluable in the treatment of humans. A drug to prevent a hog from getting an ulcer or a method of detecting a dog's heart condition can be equally effective when used on a man.
Much of the veterinarian's skill is due to modern medical innovations, yet the roots of his profession are deep in antiquity, originating long before the dawn of civilization. In the broadest sense, veterinary medicine began when man first went to the aid of animals in a long-ago, unfriendly world. From this eons-old affinity between man and beast, veterinary medicine evolved.
The first authentic record of veterinary medicine as a profession comes from the reign of the great Babylonian king, Hammurabi, some 4,000 years ago. In a list of statutes that touched on many facets of his kingdom, Hammurabi included laws governing the practice of veterinary medicine.
During the days of Rome's greatness veterinarians became increasingly proficient, with treatment of animals based more on observation and study and less on superstition and ignorance. They learned much while caring for horses of the Roman cavalry and left as a legacy surprisingly accurate tracts on animal medicine.
It was centuries after Rome's decline, however, before veterinary medicine—more or less as it is known today—came into being. The first school for its instruction was founded in Lyons, France in 1761. The Boston Veterinary Institute, organized in 1854, was the first school of its kind in the United States to turn out a graduating class.
During the early 1900's many private schools for the study of veterinary medicine opened, but none lasted. Gradually veterinary medicine became, and has remained, a function of recognized colleges and universities. Today there are 18 colleges of veterinary medicine in the U. S., all four-year institutions that require two years of previous college study for admission.
While the great majority of veterinarians are men, at least 300 women are active in the profession. Many of these female animal doctors fulfill roles as wives and mothers at the same time. Some practice jointly with their husbands. One veterinarian couple has arrived at a division of labor that seems to keep both parties satisfied: the husband handles the livestock, the so-called "large animals," and the wife takes care of poultry, cats, dogs and anything else in the "small animal" category.
Any veterinarian will admit that newly developed drugs, such as tranquilizers, have made his job easier. Now even the most excited animal, once tranquilized, can be treated properly. In the past many animals died or suffered unnecessary anguish because a veterinarian was unable to give them medication. Gargantua, the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus gorilla, might have lived longer, but no animal doctor could get near him.
Since Gargantua's demise (of pneumonia complicated by bad wisdom teeth), zoo veterinarians have developed a new method of giving injections. When they deem it necessary (and who wants to fool around with a dyspeptic tiger or rheumy water buffalo?), they use a special gun that fires a syringe into the hide of a sick animal. A delayed powder charge then drives the syringe plunger down, sending the medication into the animal's system.
When the veterinarian of a few decades ago—usually a rural resident who ministered almost exclusively to farm animals—went on a call, his black bag contained surgical instruments, dressings and a few basic medicines. Today he takes with him a wide variety of supplies—tranquilizers, antibiotics, syringes, examining instruments, splints, sutures and dressings. At the veterinarian's hospital the operating and post-operative rooms contain all the basic equipment required for extensive and complex surgery.
Like most people, veterinarians prefer to do their work during regular hours. But they are ethically bound to answer a serious distress call at any hour. According to one veterinarian, a working day often lasts from "dawn until exhaustion." To render assistance after normal hospital hours, a number of cities have veterinary organizations that provide crisis care at any time of day or night.
A probable record-holder for long-distance traveling is an Oakland, California veterinarian whose specialty is saving simian lives. He occasionally goes to exotic ports of call such as Singapore, Manila and Calcutta where monkey exporters are worried about high losses on shipments to the U. S. Not only does this veterinarian guard cargo, he also doubles his value by serving as the plane's co-pilot.
The typical American veterinarian, to be sure, enjoys a somewhat more prosaic practice than that of the flying monkey expert. But there is no longer any question that man is an animal's best friend.