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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How I Killed My First Cockatiel

If the owner of this first cockatiel ever reads this, I’m in trouble. And if enough people keep reading my blog, they’re going to think I’m a real exotic pet keeping loser. I can’t help it. I feel it’s important for people to know that mistakes will be made. It happens in general life and it happens with raising children and pets, especially exotics whose lives are so much more tenuous than those of dogs or cats. For me, it’s often the primary way to learn. Not that I’ve made major life mistakes, but I tend to take chances that sometimes don’t end well. Enough said.

As I’ve mentioned, working for veterinarians affords some advantages. One client indicated she had a hand-fed baby, gray cockatiel she couldn’t keep. She lived in my hometown of Chicago Heights which I suppose made me feel somewhat akin to her so I agreed to help her out. While I normally honor the previous owner by keeping an animal’s given name, I didn’t do that with this one. She hadn’t had the bird long and was calling it Elmo even though, without the bright orange spots on its cheeks, it looked to be a female. On top of that, I’m of the early Sesame Street era and I never really liked Elmo since he arrived late on the scene and started stealing the show from Kermit, Grover, Herry and Cookie. I named the bird Genny and set her up in a nice cage with food, water and toys.

As with all new arrivals, I didn’t bother her much those first few days so she’d have a chance to adjust to her new surroundings in a spare room of the little cottage where we lived at the time. One thing I learned working at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital was that an all seed diet was bad for a bird’s health. If you wanted your bird to live a long, healthy life it was best to feed a pelleted diet. Pellets are similar to dog or cat kibble except they’re designed with bird nutrition in mind. They come in various colors and sizes for different birds. This was still fairly new thinking, but I was all in so I started Genny on pellets right away, while still feeding her seed. I could have also offered table food like corn, beans and rice, but I only did that if we had leftovers from our own human meals. The doctors always stressed that it should be a gradual transition from seeds to pellets, adding that it could take weeks or months. You’re supposed to slowly decrease the seed while increasing the pellets. Makes sense, right?

Well, I was so proud of myself because I had that baby girl eating pellets within about ten days. I knew that if an animal was hungry it would eat so we could just do away with the seeds altogether. This was over fifteen years ago and I truly can’t remember what made me think she was eating well, but whatever it was, I was terribly wrong because I found her dead at the bottom of the cage one morning. Of course, I was shocked and bummed and confused all at once. I wrapped her up and took her to work with me so somebody could hopefully give me an explanation.

Without even doing a post-mortem exam, it was obvious to the doctors and technicians that she was very, very thin. Her keel, or breast bone, was very prominent with no “meat” around it. I told them I had recently moved her to a pellet-only diet and thought she was eating fine. The simple fact is that I was wrong. She was still a young bird, maybe only a few months old, and shouldn’t have been expected to eat just pellets. She was dead now and I couldn’t go back. I hate that feeling. For one, I felt I had left the previous owner down. On top of that, my arrogance had made an animal suffer, something I would pay good money to never allow.

The client who gave me that bird came into the animal hospital at least once after that. I never told her what happened and she, for some odd reason, didn’t ask how Elmo was doing. There had been a long time between visits to the animal hospital, so maybe she wasn’t sure if I was the same person who had her bird or maybe she expected me to say something first. I always wondered about this. I’ve never been any good at lying and I’m glad I didn’t have to, but if she would have asked, I would have saved her grief and said the bird was fine, but that I’d changed her name to Genny. I suppose I thought disappointing her just a little with this truth was preferred over disappointing her a lot with the whole truth.

It was a costly, blatant mistake that I’ve not since made again. I’ve made others and I’ll surely write about them, but none that cost an animal its life, so I hope you’ll keep reading. My two current cockatiels are pushing 16 years of age and eat some pellets, but mostly seeds.

This is our cockatiel, Weston. His coloration is called "normal grey." If it was a female, there wouldn't be any yellow on the face and the orange patches would appear dull or faded.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Caveat: Exotics are not for everyone

I feel the need to define “exotic pet,” as this may mean different things to different people. As far as this blog is concerned, it doesn’t include species that would be better served by zookeepers, veterinarians or licensed wildlife rehab specialists. While it is not illegal to own many non-native species like the fennec fox, kinkajou or sugar glider, they don’t necessarily make very good pets for the average pet keeper. Of course, this does not include dangerous species such as bears, various cats, coyotes, wolves, poisonous reptiles and other reptiles beyond a certain size. These are very likely illegal. Every state in the U.S. has different laws regarding pet ownership so if you find yourself falling in love with a baby alligator or coatimundi, you’d better check your state’s laws first. One website I found helpful was the Animal Legal and Historical Center supported by Michigan State University College of Law.

Most of the animals you find in a pet store or with breeders are safe to keep because they’re managed by the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. This is an organization that maintains international government agreements with regard to the trading of plants and animals. Legal transfer of animals to and from the 175 countries partied with CITES requires strict documentation.

I recently read the book, “Life on the Ark,” by Dr. Lester Fisher, former director and veterinarian for the
Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He had several stories about “collecting trips” made to Africa and Asia to acquire species from the wild. This usually involved a group of men and a net or some kind of cage. While they intended no direct harm on the animals, it was sad to read because you could just imagine what the chimpanzee must have been thinking or feeling. That was the old days when there were little or no restrictions. Now before pet stores, zoos, collectors and individuals can legally import or export species, they have to meet CITES requirements. This includes souvenir items that might be made from the wood of an endangered tree or the tusks or bones of an animal.

It’s possible I may someday write about coatis or sugar gliders, but that post will likely lean toward providing facts and leaving care to those with experience. Of course, to become experienced, one needs time and a strong sense of commitment not unlike what’s needed to care for a toddler. One must ask one’s self if they’re prepared to make those kinds of sacrifices. So are you?

This is a coatimundi, a term which refers to a lone coati species. It's natural habitat is wooded areas of Latin America though it has been found as far north as southern Arizona and New Mexico. They're in the family of procyonidae along with raccoons and ringtails.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bye Bye Gecko Tail

When we first brought home our crested gecko, I preached to the kids about not handling him without supervision and to never grab him by the tail. I was determined to make sure this little lizard kept his tail since he wasn’t like other species that can grow one back. We filled gecko’s cage with fake plants and driftwood pieces arranged strategically so he could navigate over and under. There was one tight spot in a corner that he liked, but it appeared he could get in and out fine. The cage was placed on our son’s dresser since this was technically his pet and he could help with the nightly misting.

We tried to handle the lizard only every few days at this point so he’d have a chance to adjust to his new environment. The breeder suggested we let him walk on our hands by moving one hand in front of the other. We found he was very jumpy and could quickly move from hand to arm to shirt. It’s a little freaky at first, but he never tried to bite and we were very gentle with him. There was no need to touch his tail since I could kind of peel him off by carefully cupping my hand over his body.

After about three months, we were getting more confident with him and he was getting used to our periodic handling. One evening when I went to get him out, my eyes fell upon a lone tail lying in the open on a log. It took a second to register that this three inch span of lizard was not attached to a body. “No!” I spouted. “No, no, no, nooooooo.” Picture the scene from Toy Story, near the end when Woody’s match goes out just as he’s about to light the rocket. That was me.

I immediately pointed an accusatory finger, but as usual, “nobody knew nothin.” This time I actually believed them, but was very upset knowing a mistake was made and there was no fixing it. The gecko appeared fine. There was a little pointed stump in the place where his tail would have attached, but it was clean and already healing.

I deduced that the cage position on top of our son’s dresser was probably to blame. Whenever said son would open or close a drawer, the dresser would shake or wobble a little. I think this was enough to jiggle one of the log pieces out of place and the little guy’s tail must have been caught under one. I hadn't been able to locate him the night before and decided to just let him be. I’m guessing he was probably pinned under a log and had to finally pull away when thirst or hunger got the best of him.

I stayed in a disappointed state for a couple days, but felt a little better after reading that 75 percent of crested geckos studied in the wild were observed without tails. I told myself and the kids it was probably best he lost the tail now rather than a year or two from now when it would have been even more traumatizing, to us that is. My self-soothing philosophy said, “That’s out of the way now and we don’t have to worry about it.”

That was over a year ago and there’ve been no problems since. I moved the cage to our bird room where there's special lighting and more appropriate temperatures. The stump never bled or swelled or anything and frankly, the gecko didn’t seem to miss it. That’s a wild animal for you: They don’t dwell on things the way we humans do. Even our domesticated pets still have natural instincts on which they rely. We have much to learn from these creatures with whom we choose to surround ourselves.

Young crested gecko before losing tail. Photo without tail coming soon.

Here's a photo of our crested gecko at nearly two years of age. She's about 4 to 5 inches long without the tail. She's resting on a pot holder, though she doesn't stay still for very long when she's out of her vivarium. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Exotic Pet Vet

Sometimes elusive, complex, indefinite: The right exotic veterinarian for your pets can be hard to find. In my case, it was easy because I worked among several leading professionals at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, formerly in Westchester, Illinois. As the first veterinary practice dedicated to treating exotics exclusively, Midwest Bird was a very busy, thriving practice. As a part–time receptionist for nine years, I often just brought my pet to work with me. Once our family moved and I left that position, the search for a new vet began, but it was hard not to make comparisons with the former.

A nearby town had one vet that specialized in exotics, but after a third visit, I found him less than experienced. I had volunteered to take my neighbor’s guinea pig in for euthanasia. She was an older pig with recurring problems, but I was curious to know if she had tooth spurs or something else going on in her mouth. This veterinary practice was good enough to agree to euthanize a pet they’d not seen before and I was grateful for that, so I was probably pushing it by asking them to please have a look in her mouth, now that she was dead, for any abnormalities. Apparently, in order to do that, I was told they'd have to pry her mouth open thereby breaking her jaw. First of all this isn’t true if you’ve got the right tools which I would assume a veterinarian who specializes in exotics has, and second, who cares because she’s dead and it’s not going to hurt. I don’t recall my actual response though I’m sure one raised eyebrow was involved and a resolution to never return.

An ad in the newspaper led the way to the next exotic vet in a small town about 40 minutes away. The doctor was competent, but the place was tiny and cramped. For example, the employee coffee pot was on a small table in the bathroom. I went there a couple of times, but ended it after they wanted to charge me $63 for a routine cremation of a rat.

Oddly enough, I learned there’s a ferret sanctuary in another nearby small town so I had the bright idea, finally, to ask the proprietor what vet she uses. This led me to Dogwood Petcare Center and Dr. Katie Racek-Peters. I first went in with our newly acquired Senegal parrot, Louie, who needed a nail trim. I had tried to do it myself with a Dremel, but it was still tricky and stressful. Other visits followed and I found Dr. Katie was always willing to work within my budget and listen to my ideas. She understands that not everyone is prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on a small animal that has a short lifespan, but she also appreciates my knowledge and respect for her as a professional. I know she needs blood tests or x-rays to support a diagnosis and she never pressures me to go one way or another. She helps me make an educated decision.

There are a number of ways to choose a vet who specializes in exotics. One place to start is the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Many doctors who see birds are qualified to see other small animals. In my opinion, ferrets can be tricky so it would be best to talk to other ferret keepers for recommendations.

Even the finest exotic veterinarian may not always be the best fit for your personality or style of pet keeping. Some will ask you to do more than you’re capable of and even make you feel a little guilty, while perhaps unintentionally. Some will be so sure of themselves they boost your confidence only to get less than anticipated results. Some will make mistakes. The pets we’ve chosen aren’t always forthright with their symptoms and certainly can’t tell us how they feel so treatment isn’t always right on.

The field of exotic medicine is still new and expanding. Great strides have been made in the last two decades and the science continues to advance. Regardless, there ought to be some give and take between you and your exotic pet vet so you can work together for the animal’s benefit, which in turn, will transfer to the pet keeper’s happiness.

This is Louie free climbing up our cabinets. We had to put a stop to this eventually due to nicks from his beak and the trouble he caused once he got to the countertop.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reptile in the House

Up until two years ago, I had no interest in keeping a reptile. My pet store and veterinary hospital experience taught me how much was involved in caring for a cold-blooded animal. I would need a heat lamp or heat pad or both. I would have to make a salad for the pet every day or provide live or killed food like crickets, mice goldfish or rats. Although I have no problem with snakes and I like watching them, I wasn't interested in having one and I really didn't like watching them eat. I liked the idea of keeping a box turtle or tortoise, but again, wasn't sure if I could provide the best environment. So I stayed away from reptiles even though they were offered to me free numerous times. In fact, most of my animals were acquired free of charge from customers or clients who had to give them up for one reason or another.

In 2007, I was writing a story about the Midwest Museum of Natural History in Sycamore, Illinois. Jack Hanna was to appear and I was given the awesome opportunity of covering the event. At that time, the museum had a special exhibit of live reptiles and I notice a cool looking lizard which I learned was a crested gecko (Rhacodactylus ciliatus). I'd never seen anything like it before and, as far as care and such, was only familiar with leopard geckos. The young man who owned the display said these lizards were fairly new to the pet scene, but were easy to care for because they do fine at room temperature. I made a mental note of this little lizard and decided someday I just might like to have one. I started looking for them in pet stores when I would go in for supplies, but didn't find any until 2010.

Under the guise of a birthday gift for our then 9 year-old son, I made arrangements to purchase one from a breeder. I had seen a crested at Petco, but it had already lost its tail and in this species the tail does not grow back. However, the price was right because it was marked down to $35 from $75.

In my search to find a breeder, I stumbled upon a link for Scott Smith’s All Animal Expo, held twice a month just about a one hour drive from my home. The website had a list of vendors that would take part in the event. I started talking to a breeder on the list by e-mail and made arrangements to buy a young “crestie” from her for $50. She was very knowledgeable and helpful. She raises her geckos on Repashy crested gecko diet which is just a powder that mixes with water and gets set out in a dish. No salad making or cricket feeding necessary. All the nutrition the crested needs, aside from that provided from natural sunlight, is in this diet. That little lizard was handed to us in a small, round, plastic container that measured about 4 inches wide and a little over an inch high. He barely filled the middle of it and a year and a half later he would never fit since he’s more than doubled in length and height.

We started housing him in the largest plastic Kritter Keeper we could buy. There were several nice reptile enclosures for sale at the expo, but I liked the lightweight plastic and secure lid (and the $20 price) of the one we chose. We put some nice driftwood logs in and a bunch of fake foliage. The breeder recommended only paper towels for the bottom of the enclosure so we complied. For one, it makes it easy to see if your lizard is giving off wastes, but it also prevents the gecko from ingesting other types of substrates like sand, soil, bark or litter.

We fed our cute baby gecko the Repashy mix in a tiny food dish from my daughter’s Littlest Pet Shop playset. This worked for a while, but I felt like he preferred to be up high so I looked for something better. I liked the fake rock feeding shelf I found at Pangea Reptile Supplies. It has two spaces for water and food cups and it sticks to the side of any cage with strong magnets. While we’ve observed our lizard on the feeding shelf and have noticed the food level go down in his dish, oddly enough, the whole time we’ve had him, we’ve never once seen him eat the Repashy. We buy him crickets once every 4 to 6 weeks, but he’s so fast, sometimes we can’t see him eat these either. That’s okay because I’m just so proud that he’s doing well and seems to be thriving. I took him to the veterinarian around his one year birthday and he weighed 13 grams. That was an interesting vet visit, but I’d like to talk more about that later, along with the one mistake I made that cost him his tail. Thanks for listening and feel free to ask questions. Here are a few pictures.