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The Art and Science of Animal Care

When The Florida Aquarium Associate Veterinarian Dr. Ari Fustukjian returned my call the other day, he was pleased he had just been bitten by a Madagascar Gecko. 
“He hadn’t been eating well lately, so it was it was a sign he was feeling better,” explained Dr. Fustukjian, who uses a guitar pick to open the reptile’s small but strong jaws during examinations.


They don’t make medical supplies for a lot of Fustukjian’s patients, which can range from finger-sized seahorses to 10-foot sand tiger sharks. So, innovation is a daily requirement. 
As Fustukjian recently recounted to a fascinated crowd at an Evening Tide Talk for friends of the Aquarium, he uses a heavy utility cart as a mobile operating table for fish. A pump on the lower shelf pumps water to the gills of the fish being treated on the top shelf. A chamois cloth keeps the fish wet during procedures. 


Fustukjian stresses he didn’t invent the cart-operating table, but every aquarium vet ends up making his or her own refinements to the improvised medical equipment. 


“I find myself walking through Home Depot looking for things we can adapt,” he said. “We really have to be jack-of-all trades.”


Fustukjian believes that such ingenuity is characteristic of all Aquarium employees, who constantly strive to devise improvements in the animals’ habitat or care. Fustukjian uses swim noodles to cushion heavy sea turtles when they are too ill to swim and must be kept out of water. 


“Once a male sea turtle is hatched and goes to sea, he rarely ever comes ashore again,” he explained. Thus, the turtle is ill-equipped to support his own weight out of water for any length of time. 


It is worth noting that sick sea turtles, particularly the cold afflicted, from other states often are sent to The Florida Aquarium, where they are nursed back to health and returned to the wild.


Fustukjian, who grew up in Temple Terrace and attended King High School, is one of two veterinarians tending The Florida Aquarium’s more than 7,000 creatures. Dr. Kathy Heym is the Aquarium’s director of animal health. Beyond crafting much of their own medical equipment, the Aquarium vets must be equally resourceful in diagnosing what ails the marine creatures.


As Fustukjian pointed out, a lot of wild terrestrial animals (particularly mammals and birds) share a great deal of similarities in anatomy, physiology, and disease. A lion or other big cat may be far more dangerous to work with, but its anatomy is “not that different from a domestic cat.” A wolf resembles a dog; a deer has a lot in common with cows and other domestic herbivores. There is plenty of information on such animals’ illnesses and how to treat them, and if not, there often a place to start looking. Not so with many marine creatures.


There is no manual, for instance, for what to do about a tiny seahorse that no longer can float upright, a situation Fustukjian recently encountered. X-raying the ill seahorse and comparing it to X-rays of its healthy companions revealed the seahorse’s swim bladder was shrunken, a sign of infection. Fustukjian treated the seahorse with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and fashioned a tiny neoprene floatation collar to keep it upright while it recovered. 


The vets do regular checkups on the fish and wildlife, which include blood work, vaccines and parasite prevention. However, Fustukjian gives the Aquarium’s animal care staff most of the credit for keeping the animals healthy and happy. These dedicated biologists constantly observe the animals, tracking eating habits and behavior. They quickly notice when something is wrong.  


Fustukjian illustrated how extensive the monitoring is: the staff members caring for the stingrays in the touch exhibits at the TECO Manatee Viewing Center and Tropicana Field can account for each piece of food each ray consumes. These animals are seen as individuals, and biologists can see the slightest “change in food intake.”


When an animal does become ill, X-rays or sonograms can be used, which are not always easy to perform on marine creatures. 


Fustukjian says treatment decisions are guided by a series of questions: “What is best for the animal? Is it feasible? How important is it? How stressful is it? How dangerous is it for the staff? And how often does it need to be done?”


And the welfare of every Aquarium inhabitant, no matter how small, is considered a priority.
The Aquarium team even checks the health of small prey species, which can be difficult because the fish, understandably, “try to hide all signs of illness or injury.”Because of such care, the Aquarium’s inhabitants live far longer than they would in the unforgiving wild. Some of its redfish have been there since 1997.


Dr. Fustukjian has always loved animals, particularly reptiles, and grew up exploring the Hillsborough River. He earned an undergraduate degree in biological science at the State University of New York at Albany and then obtained his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in New York.


When working as a vet tech in Westchase, clients frequently called on him to pull water moccasins and other snakes out of their swimming pools. He studied timber rattlesnakes in the Adirondack mountains. He also has worked with jaguars in Belize. It should come as no surprise he isn’t hesitant about treating the likes of a slimy, 30-pound moray eel, which beyond its mouth full of razor-sharp teeth has a second, equally formidable jaw, like something from “Aliens.” 


Treating dangerous animals, Fustukjian explained, is a matter of methodical attention to detail. When a moray requires a medical procedure, for instance, it is put in a small pool of water that contains a mild anesthetic. Once the eel is sedated, staff can safely work with it, and there is minimal stress to the animal.


For Fustukjian, the difficulties of aiding a slippery, toothy eel or healing a 35-pound porcupine fish that can instantly balloon with water is all part of the “joys of the job.”
According to Fustukjian, “We deal with species that you don’t normally work with. There are always more things to do and more ways to try” to help these wonders of nature.”

 

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.