Veterinary care of aquarium animals can be a tricky business. How can sea turtles or harbor seals tell us how they feel and how can we examine and treat animals submerged in thousands of gallons of water?
Clinical veterinarian Barb Mangold and aquarist Ellen Riker understand the challenges well as they help to manage the care of The Maritime Aquarium’s animals. Dr. Mangold responds to daily health issues, as well as preventative care, annual exams, nutrition and husbandry. “Often we cannot do a ‘hands-on’ exam on our animals and have to examine them visually to determine whether or not we need to either sedate or restrain the animal to get a closer look at the problem,” she said. “Seals can be a challenge with anesthesia and sedation due to their dive reflex and the ability to hold their breath for long periods.”
Like all members of the Aquarium’s animal husbandry staff, Riker monitors the animals and their habitats day-to-day and is cross-trained to administer medication and complete small procedures for the diverse collection of aquarium animals. “If I recognize a problem, I can snap a picture and email it immediately to the veterinarian,” she said.
Last year, the aquarists noticed that Polly, a 24-year-old seal, was holding her eye shut and wouldn’t eat, a sign of eye pain. Cataracts are commonly seen in seals and “usually does not cause them any problem unless the lens luxates, falls forward or backward in the eye,” Dr. Mangold explained. “Surgery alleviates the pain and stops the inflammation.” Whether treated medically or surgically, eye drops must be placed in the eye. Fortunately, the aquarium’s seals are all trained to patiently accept treatment.
Surgery requires a great deal of planning and a team of qualified professionals. The Maritime Aquarium created a temporary surgery suite near the seal habitat with equipment for anesthesia and vital-sign monitoring transferred from South Wilton Veterinary Group. A team of specialists, including an ophthalmologist, anesthesiologist and a marine mammal veterinarian, joined Dr. Mangold. Riker and her colleagues prepared a space for Polly’s post-surgery care because the seal had to remain out of the water for three weeks.
Dr. Mangold describes the procedure as: “Polly was first sedated and then induced with an IV injection of propofol anesthesia. She was then intubated and placed on gas anesthesia for the procedure. She was also placed on a ventilator so that we could control her breathing.”
“The eyes were paralyzed and an incision was made into the cornea and the lens was removed. The incision was closed and the chamber of the eye was re-inflated with a sterile solution. She remained in the temporary holding area for 6 weeks so that we could monitor her progress and place eye drops several times each day.”
How is the patient today? “She is doing great! She has excellent vision and often steals food from other seals in the tank,” Dr. Mangold said. Thanks to the team of animal experts and our generous donors who support the expense of surgery, Polly is back showing off her natural skills in the seal exhibit.