BOOKS: The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes & Trust Me: I’m not a veterinarian
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2008:
The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes
& other surprising stories of zoo vets and their patients
Edited by Lucy H. Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM
Delacorte Press (c/o Random House,
1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2008.
Hardcover, 310 pages. $22.00.
Trust Me: I’m not a veterinarianŠNo Dog Before His Time!
James D. Schwartz
Next To Kin Foundation (5954 S. Monaco Way, Centennial, CO 80111), 2008.
324 pages, paperback. $15.99.
The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes and Trust
Me: I’m not a veterinarian could scarcely
present more contrasting views of the veterinary
Twenty-eight zoo vets in The Rhino With
Glue-On Shoes recall their most memorable
patients. Each appears to work in the tradition
of All Creatures Great & Small author James
Herriot, authentically fond of animals and quick
to respond to any crisis involving any sort of
animal, from sea dragons to gorillas and polar
Zoo vets tend to be among the best of the
best, especially at diagnostic work. A zoo vet
must be able to treat hundreds of species for
thousands of conditions specific to their kind.
Some of these conditions transmit interspecies
but present wildly varied symptoms in different
species. Because the base of medical knowledge
about most animal species kept in zoos is
relatively narrow, zoo vets are at much greater
risk of making mistakes than dog, cat, equine,
and agricultural vets.
At the same time, zoo vets work under
omnipresent public scrutiny. If a celebrated zoo
animal falls ill or is injured, the case can
become a local cause celebré. If the animal
dies, the zoo vet will often be blamed.
Nowhere in The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes
is there a list of the contributors, though a
brief biography of each one appears at the end of
his or her chapter. Most of their names would
not be recognized outside the zoo field.
Co-editor Lucy Spelman may be the most
famous, not for her many years as National Zoo
chief veterinarian, but for her brief,
catastrophic tenure as director of the zoo. That
ended in mid-2004 after a National Academy of
Sciences investigative panel criticized her
management style and alleged deficiencies in the
zoo’s veterinary care.
A variety of experts have told ANIMAL
PEOPLE, however, that the biggest problem at
the National Zoo, not just under Spelman but for
generations, has been that it is operated by the
Smithsonian Institution, which is oriented
toward running museums, not housing live
animals. Much of the zoo was built long before
current ideas about keeping animals healthy in
captivity began to develop.
Spelman’s contribution, providing the
title to the anthology, is about saving a rhino
with a history of chronic foot problems caused by
having spent most of his life on unnaturally hard
surfaces. Eventually the rhino was sent to a
more appropriate habitat.
The next best-known contributor to The
Rhino With Glue-On Shoes is probably Jeff Boehm
of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Early in his
career Boehm had the misfortune to be among the
attending vets, at two different institutions,
when animals who were already a focus of activist
attention died under sedation. Despite the
bashing Boehm got from elsewhere, he was willing
to discuss both cases with ANIMAL PEOPLE. The
problem in each case was that the total number of
animals of the species involved who had ever been
sedated was fewer than the number of dogs or cats
a typical vet might see in a week, and the
appropriate dose-to-weight ratios turned out to
be far lower than had been inferred from previous
Boehm’s chapter of The Rhino With Glue-On
Shoes recounts how the Shedd saved a beluga whale
baby who was orphaned by the unexpected death of
Not all of the stories in The Rhino With
Glue-On Shoes end happily. Some of the vets are
still wondering, years later, what they might
have done to save animals who died mysteriously.
But there are many happy endings when vets
discover unexpected solutions to baffling
problems. A reader favorite will probably be
former Wildlife Waystation vet Becky Yates’
account of saving a bear cub whose bones failed
to harden. Yates was out of ideas and hope, but
Waystation founder Martine Colette insisted that
such a happy animal would recover properly with
the right diet and care. The cub eventually
proved her right.
James D. Schwartz, a personal financial
planner, wrote Trust Me: I’m not a veterinarian
just before the U.S. economy collapsed, eroding
public faith in fiduciaries.
Surveys continue to show that
veterinarians are among the most trusted
practitioners of any profession. Schwartz
contends that much of the trust that the public
invests in vets is misplaced. Among his targets
are misrepresentation of cremation services,
vets who insist that animals be vaccinated
annually against rabies even though vaccinating
only every third year is adequate, overpricing
vaccination, gaps in disaster response planning,
and the deficiencies of vet health insurance.
Schwartz himself has tried to sell an approach to
vet health insurance that he believes would
better serve pets and their people.
Schwartz appears to be fingering average
small animal clinicians, with typical practices.
Many readers will have had experiences similar to
some of those Schwartz describes. But probably
most will have met professionals in other fields
whose performance is unsatisfactory, who get
away with mediocrity in part because the demand
for their services exceeds the numbers who are
trained to step in as replacements.
The present global veterinary shortage is
not expected to ease soon. The best vets today
are better than ever, through the combination of
improved training, improved diagnostic
equipment, and more effective medications, but
any vet with a license can find work.
Meanwhile, Schwartz’ critique suffers
from having apparently been written as web pages.
The choppy writing style, suited to a small
screen, does not translate into a fluent
narrative in book format.