...who takes care of sick animals?

Ever Wonder? / September 16, 2020
A team of people holds a long boa constrictor for its annual exam.
Image attribution
Courtesy of Brittany Stevens

Courtesy of Brittany Stevens
Boa constrictor annual exam

Three people cooperate to perform surgery on a rockfish.
Image attribution
Courtesy of Brittany Stevens

Courtesy of Brittany Stevens
A team works together to spay a rockfish. Notice the yellow shammy under the fish, and the water flowing off the table after running over the fish's gills.

Two women perform an ultrasound on a fish. The ultrasound image is visible on a laptop.
Image attribution
Courtesy of Brittany Stevens

Courtesy of Brittany Stevens
A fish gets an ultrasound in a quarantine room using a mobile ultrasound machine.

Dr. Brittany Stevens examines a beetle under a microscope.
Image attribution
Courtesy of Brittany Stevens

Courtesy of Brittany Stevens
Dr. Stevens gives a beetle a checkup under a microscope.

Giant sea bass. Desert tortoise. Leopard shark. These are all examples of creatures you can see on display when you visit the California Science Center. And just like you or me or any of the pets you might have at home, these critters can get sick.

Do you ever wonder who takes care of all these different animals when they need to go to the doctor?

In this episode, we're joined by Dr. Brittany Stevens, a veterinarian here at the Science Center. She'll tell us all about her vet exam room, how she cares for so many different kinds of animals, and even what it's like to do surgery on fish.

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Perry Roth-Johnson: 00:06

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center, I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. Giant sea bass, desert tortoise, leopard shark. These are all examples of creatures you can see on display when you visit the California Science Center, and just like you or me or any of the pets you might have at home, these critters can get sick. Do you ever wonder who takes care of all these different animals when they need to go to the doctor? Well, in this episode, we're joined by Dr. Brittany Stevens, a veterinarian here at the Science Center. She'll tell us all about her vet exam room, how she cares for so many different kinds of animals and even what it's like to do surgery on fish. All right, Brittany, thanks for, uh, joining us on the show.

Brittany Stevens: 00:55 

You're welcome. Glad to be here.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 00:56 

So you're a veterinarian, but, but you don't work with like the dogs and cats that a lot of people, you know, might bring to the, you, you deal with the animals at the California Science Center.

Brittany Stevens: 01:08 

Yeah, I think a lot of people get shocked. Um, you know, they're like, well, how on Earth could a salamander get? It's like, you know, think about your dog or cat. Like, what does could the dog attack it? They could get trauma, meaning they could get like wounds from, you know, running into something or another animal attacking them. They get bacterial infections, they can get viral infections. So there's kind of broad classes of diseases that basically can affect any animal. And that's what your vet school training trains you to deal with.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:39 

Do you specialize in aquatic animals? How did you even get interested in this stuff?

Brittany Stevens: 01:45 

That whole story I actually started when I was about four years old. I went to Sea World and I was able to see all the amazing marine wildlife and I fell in love. Actually for a while I thought I really wanted to be a marine mammal trainer. I love the human animal bond that the animals had with their trainers, and I thought that was pretty cool. Um, my mom, however, is a human physician and so I kind of grew up going to the hospital and seeing, you know, her take care of patients. And somewhere in middle school, I realized that, you know, Shamu needed a veterinarian to take care of him. So I was like, you know what? Yeah, I'm going to be an aquatic veterinarian. So from the time I was probably in middle school, that was always kind of my goal. I knew I wanted to go to vet school and specifically I really always wanted to work, um, with aquatic animals. So be that fish or invertebrate sharks, um, marine mammals, you name it, I've always been a fish head and love marine life. So I love only animals, honestly. Um, I love our terrestrial collection as well. And I get to see new and, you know, fascinating animals each and every day here, we have things like our turkey vulture. We have a macaw, we have chuckwallas which are lizards. Um, we a bunch of snakes. Um, we're actually just doing an annual exam on one of our, our snake patients this morning. So our rosy boa went to get a checkup this morning. Happy to report he's doing well.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:12 

Clean bill of health.

Brittany Stevens: 03:13


Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:13

We basically have a mini hospital set up. We call it the vet exam room. Right?

Brittany Stevens: 03:18

Mmm hmm.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:18 

Uh, tell me a little bit about what, what it's like to work in that room. What kind of tools you have, what, what your typical day might look like when an animal gets sick?

Brittany Stevens: 03:28

Yeah, so it probably looks very familiar to what most people envision as kind of a dog and cat exam room. We have a main table that we can put up our animals on to do exams on them. And then just kind of in there, we also have some caging, um, that we can use to house animals if they're sick, or if they're recovering from a procedure and we want to keep a close eye on them in our back area, we have a little room called our pharmacy rooms. So we have, um, all of our medications stored back there. Um, and then off, um, to the left, we also have another smaller room, which is our surgery suite. Um, so in there we can do surgical procedures on animals. Uh, we have, um, an anesthesia machine. It's the same type of anesthesia machine that you would see in a dog and cat clinic in there. We also have our radiograph unit, which takes x-rays of our animals. Should we need to use it? Um, we have in there our ultrasound equipment. So if an animal needs an ultrasound, we're able to do that. That's on a little cart, so we can actually wheel it all over the, um, the Science Center and kind of go to the animals if we need to with it. And then some more kind of specialized equipment that we have that you probably would not see at a dog and cat clinic is we have a whole endoscopy setup. Um, so endoscopy basically means there's a camera at the end of a, kind of a long rigid pole. That's about 15 centimeters long. And so we can use that to, um, look inside the animals. So if they've potentially swallowed something, we could stick it down their throat. If they essentially have diarrhea, we could go up the back end or even if they have, um, you know, something going on internally where we're not entirely sure what's going on, we can make a small incision in their belly and look around and view all the different organs and potentially take biopsies if we need to, or potentially even do something like minimally invasive surgery.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 05:15 

So let me ask this question first. Like, are there any fish at the Science Center that you've done surgery?

Brittany Stevens: 05:22 

Oh yes.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 05:22


Brittany Stevens: 05:22

I do surgery. Um, or like kind of more minor procedures. Sometimes we may do major surgery on our fish here. Um, so the way that looks is usually the aquarists who are kind of taking care of the animals day in, day out, they're feeding them, they're cleaning their tanks. They'll notice there's something wrong with the fish. Unfortunately, maybe it might have, uh, an eye that it banged and now its eye is protruding a little bit, or it just might be off and not wanting to eat food. Um, so then, um, they would kind of call the vet staff team, make an appointment to bring the fish, um, over to us or potentially we might just go look at it on exhibit first to try and make a little bit of a better plan. Um, but if it gets to the point where it comes down to the vet room and we decide that it needs surgery, what we have is a pretty cool setup. Um, you can actually do surgery on fish, which I think a lot of people don't realize. Um, we do anesthetize them. The way that we do that is we dissolve an anesthetic in the water and basically then the fish breathe. It, um, it goes into their mouth, it passes across their gills and, um, it goes into their bloodstream through their gills. And as they absorb it through the water, they get sleepy just like you or I, if we were to have, um, surgery, and they put the anesthetic mask over your face and you start breathing that gas that has anesthesia in it, um, they get sleepy and go to sleep. And then actually we're able to take them out of the water if we need to, the only thing they need to kind of keep going is they need to have water passing over their gills continuously. So what we do is we put a pump in that anesthetic water, and then it has a hose that connects to the pumps and we put the hose in the fish's mouth and so the water flows from the pump into the fish's mouth, across their gills and then out there a operculum, are those little flat things that flat back and forth when you see fish kind of moving their mouth and we're actually able, if they're doing it, if we have that in place to able to take them out of the water, set them up on our surgery table, and then I can actually do surgery on them so I can work on their eyes or we can eventually flip them over and I can actually do, um, abdominal surgery on them. So I've actually done a couple of those here at the Science Center. We've had to remove the ovaries of a couple of fish because they had infections or they got what's called egg bound, meaning that they're just not able to release their eggs appropriately. And so they kind of sit in there and kind of get gross. Um, so we had to go in and remove them.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 07:47 

Is it slippery?

Brittany Stevens: 07:50 

Well, we prop, we prop them up in a, a V trough. So it's like a foam, um, on either side that we make a V out of. And then we put, um, kind of towels and things to, to keep them in place. And then over the top of all that, we put a kind of slippery surface because a lot of people, what they don't realize is that fish, um, the reason why they feel so slippery is they have a mucus layer on the outside of their skin. And it's kind of gross for us, but it's actually really important for the fish. So that actually protects their scales, this the same thing as your, like, um, the snot in our nose. So if we didn't have snot in our nose, um, you know, stuff could get into our nasal passage and same thing with fish, it's kind of got an immune function and it helps keeps things off their body 'cause they can just kind of slough it off. So we want to protect that mucus layer. So we put, um, something that's not abrasive, like a shammy is actually what we use. Um, it's one of the most important tools to fish, that is a shammy.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 08:48 

Oh, really?

Brittany Stevens: 08:48


Perry Roth-Johnson: 08:49 

Same thing I used to drive my car?

Brittany Stevens: 08:51 

Yeah. Cause they're nice and soft and non abrasive and we actually use the Sham Wow variety. So this is the synthetic shammy.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:01

Oh ok.

Brittany Stevens: 09:01 


Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:01

Hilarious. All right. Um, but even though it seems like fish and other aquatic animals are kind of near and dear to your heart, you're responsible for the land terrestrial animals too. And like both vertebrates and invertebrates, these universe of animals at the Science Center, right?

Brittany Stevens: 09:17 

Yeah. For sure.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:19 

So like how do you keep all that straight in your brain? Like all these different body types, all these different anatomy, how do you know when an animal's sick, what you need to do to them to make them feel better?

Brittany Stevens: 09:30 

So that's why, you know, uh, four years of training in vet school is, but most of the time when you get training, um, in your general vet school, it's focusing on the domestic species of dogs, cats, horses, potentially cattle, sheep, things like that. I was very lucky to go to University of California Davis. We do have a great what's called zoological medicine program. So all those other kind of weird and wonderful animals like the reptiles and fish and birds and, you know, the, even things like elephants, zebras, giraffes. So zoological medicine kind of covers anything that's not domestic. So I did have some training in vet school. And I think all that training, what it really teaches you to do is there are obviously lots of differences between all the different species. Obviously a fish is not a bird is not, you know, like your dog or cats, but they all have hearts. Um most of them have lungs, fish have gills, but they all have some sort of oxygen exchange mechanism. And so you just have to realize that, you know, more than you think you do, you might be seeing a species that you've never seen before. And of course, it's going to have some differences as compared to something else, but you just take it back to the basics. So for example, if I'm presented with a bird, it doesn't really matter to me that much if it's an ostrich or if it's a little sparrow, because I know that it's a bird and the basic anatomy is going to work pretty much the same. So it's like the same thing as if you presented a regular domestic that with, um, a Chihuahua versus a great Dane, you know, they don't freak out, be like, Oh my goodness. It's, you know, just because it's a different size, however, there are some things that you have to take into consideration. So for example, if I was going to work with an ostrich, they're really big birds and...

Perry Roth-Johnson: 11:14 


Brittany Stevens: 11:14 

...obviously it's different than working with the sparrow and their anatomy and physiology is fairly similar, but they can kick and they might respond to different medications slightly differently than a sparrow would. Um, yeah, like an example of animals that we have here. Um, we have lots of rockfish, um, in our California, um, kelp tank exhibit, and those guys are pretty small. They're usually only up to about, um, like five, six pounds. That's the biggest versus something like our, um, giant sea bass. Those guys are really big. Um, and so if we want to work with, uh, rockfish, we know those species very well. They respond pretty well to being caught up in a net, being brought to the surface and, you know, we can do what we need to do with them versus the giant sea bass, because they're so big, they do not respond well to being caught in a net. They could potentially injure divers and they tend to get swim bladder problems, meaning like their buoyancy goes off when we bring them up to the surface. So the way I approach um doing medicine on a rockfish versus the way I approach doing it on a giant sea bass, um, is different. Even though they are technically still both fish species.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 12:25 

Okay. So the way you're describing it, it almost sounds like maybe this is oversimplified. Like your bedside manner might need to be adjusted from species to species more so than your knowledge of their anatomy and how to...

Brittany Stevens: 12:42 

Yeah, that's correct.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 12:44 

Okay. Not to belabor the point, but I want to get back to this. What does it feel like the first time you're working with a new species? 'Cause I know you're a very experienced doctor now, but when you were in school, what was it like the first time? Like, did you have other people there kind of showing you the ropes, uh, what was going through your head? Were you, like, scared? Were you worried you're going to hurt the animal or are you just like super excited to think, uh, to work on something new?

Brittany Stevens: 13:09

For me I'm, I'm mostly super excited actually. That's why I love my job and I always wanted to work in a zoo or aquarium is I love being presented with new and different challenges every single day. Um, it's exciting. Um, I might not have worked on that species before, but for me that doesn't fill me with a huge amount of dread. It's like, Oh cool. I get to see this. I've never seen that before. What kind of cool, you know, adaptations does this animal have and you know, potentially how is it slightly different on the inside than the other, you know, something else that I've worked with. Um, as an example of that, um, we have something called a sarcastic fringehead here, which if you don't know what that is, everyone should Google it. They are a fish that has a very large mouth, um, that they can kind of use for territorial displays and whatnot. And so that's a species. Um, I actually had heard about, cause I love fish, but I hadn't actually got to work on as a vet before. Um, and something that's different than most fish species is that fish doesn't have a swim bladder. Um, but it makes sense because it's a fish that lays on the bottom, it's kind of an ambush predator. Um, and so it's kind of cool to get to discover things like that, where little bits of differences that you can see and how it relates to the animal's, um, natural history and kind of where they live and what they do, um, quote unquote for a living. So I like the challenge every day of seeing something new.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 14:34 

Well, Brittany, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thanks for giving a peek behind the scenes of like how we take care of our animals when they really, really need help. It's cool to talk to someone who's done surgery on fish. That's just really cool to hear that we have that kind of expertise in-house. Thanks for your time. It's good talking to you.

Brittany Stevens: 14:53 

Yeah thanks for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 14:54 

That's our show. Thanks for listening until next time keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo, Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review or tell a friend about it. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning in everyone continues. We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like onsite animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift.