February 22, 2010
This Doctor Treats Wild Ones
The patients of the Cape Wildlife Center
by Julie Hauserman
He's nursed yellow-eyed penguins back to health in New Zealand, pinpointed persistent neck problems in New Orleans' captive Komodo dragons, and studied anteater nutrition in Latin America.
Today, world-traveling Dr. Roberto Aguilar is settled in Massachusetts, lending his expertise to the less exotic animals found on Cape Cod. Aguilar is the new staff veterinarian at Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable, a Fund for Animals and Humane Society of the United States affiliated facility that provides emergency care and rehabilitation for orphaned and injured wildlife 365 days a year.
A Passion for the Business
Aguilar—known as Dr. Bob to his colleagues—has expertise in orthopedic surgery on the wings and legs of raptors, which is especially welcome at the center, since most of the 1,500 wild animals brought in for care each year are birds.
Working in the seaside community also gives Aguilar the opportunity to pursue one of his passions: Studying how changes in the environment are affecting wildlife. Today, he's using a complicated therapy to treat a swan who ate old lead shot from a pond bottom and was poisoned.
Aguilar will share detailed information about the swan's lead poisoning with other wildlife veterinarians through a cooperative program with Tufts University's School of Veterinary Medicine. By sharing details of their cases, veterinarians around the world can learn treatment techniques and begin to see patterns about environmental pollutants.
"I want to make sure our work is relevant," Aguilar said. "I'm interested in what's going on in the environment and wildlife in general, and I've been able to do this all over Latin America and the U.S."
A Lifetime Pursuit
Born and raised in Mexico City, Aguilar collected hamsters, frogs, snakes and salamanders as a boy. He liked dogs and cats, but was always interested in the wild creatures. When he was just 12 years old, he started working for a veterinarian, taking care of puppies.
"I can't remember not wanting to be a veterinarian and work with wildlife," he said.
Aguilar graduated from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1987. After an internship in veterinary medicine at Oklahoma State University in 1990, he was the clinical resident for orthopedic avian surgery at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center.
In 1992, he settled in New Orleans, where he became the senior veterinarian at the Audubon Zoo, treating all types of animals, from rhinoceroses to jaguars. He stayed there until September, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm, he was among a skeleton crew of employees at the damaged zoo caring for 1,500 animals while the city remained without electricity and running water for weeks.
Aguilar's next posts—before joining the Cape Wildlife Center—were at Chile's national zoo in Santiago, the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, and Massey University in New Zealand.
Prolific Author, Speaker
Aguilar has authored more than 50 journal articles, most of them on clinical zoo medical issues. His book on exotic animal medicine—Atlas de Medicina, Terapeutica y Patologia de Animales Exoticos – Editorial Inter-Medica, Buenos Aires—has been translated into several languages and is in its second edition.
A sought-after lecturer, Aguilar says he loves to work with veterinary students to show them, first hand, the unique issues involved in treating wild animals.
"We try to train these students," he said, "because wildlife medicine is one of those things that most veterinarians don't encounter during their conventional school-based training."
This month, veterinary students from Tufts University will travel to Cape Wildlife Center as part of a class that explores the issues involved in treating captive wildlife.
While there, the students will hear presentations from scientists who are visiting Cape Wildlife, including researchers from the United States Geologic Survey, who are conducting studies on migratory birds.
Aguilar is also hosting two researchers who are studying anteaters – one from Brazil and one from Nashville – and the students will get a chance to hear from those scientists as well.
In March, Aguilar travels to the National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association conference in Washington state. He'll give a presentation about avian malaria, which he says has shown up in New Zealand penguins, masked bobwhite quail, and other bird species around the globe.
"We're seeing avian malaria more and more with climate change," he said. "It's important to look at animal disease patterns to understand and see the effect of changes in the environment.