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Posted on Thu, Dec 1, 2011 : 5:26 a.m.

Area vet tech students taught valuable skills during exotic animal workshop

By Lorrie Shaw

A group of students from Baker College gathered around a Green Iguana named Tyson that handler Mark Creswell had retrieved from her enclosure during a recent workshop at Great Lakes Zoological Society's 'A World of Discovery', a conservation and rescue center for exotic animals in Ann Arbor.

After the animal settled down, Creswell, who is president of the nonprofit, explained proper handling techniques for reptiles like these: how to hold them so that they can be examined safely and things to look for, should one come into a veterinary office for an exam.

A flurry of questions begin: "Is this malformation of the jaw an indication of MBD? How old is she?"

Metabolic Bone Disorder, or MBD as it's referred to in herpetology and veterinary circles, is one of the common problems that these future veterinary professionals will likely see in their careers.

Dr. Cathy Theisen, DVM, instructor of the vet tech class and a visiting vet in Ann Arbor, sees how valuable the conservation and rescue facility is.

"Most vets know so little about reptiles," says Theisen.

She wants her students to be better prepared as they enter their careers, so she felt that a workshop would be perfect for them.

"This organization offers a great resource to get up to speed."

It’s obvious that the students agree with that last statement; their enthusiasm for learning about the many species of reptiles — ranging from sulcata tortoises, monitor lizards, uromastyxs and various snakes — was clearly displayed in their interaction with Creswell.

When offered the opportunity to handle three of the animals, a Green Iguana, a Bearded Dragon and an Argentinian boa, they leapt at it.

Many of the animals, including exotic birds, have come to the facility as rescues — that is, previously lived in private homes that were ill-equipped, both figuratively and literally, to care for them properly.

And, as Creswell notes, "Sometimes a family’'s circumstances change, and they are not able to care for the animal as well as they would like."

That being said, a lot of what Creswell conveys to the students is that many of these creatures have problems stemming from poor husbandry, mostly diet, but also through lack of a properly-outfitted enclosure. Most enclosures are too small (ideally, an enclosure for a medium to large reptile measures 4x8x8 feet), are inadequately heated or lack humidity levels optimal for the animals to thrive.

In the latter case, most homes are relatively low in humidity — 20 to 30 percent —  whereas many exotic reptiles are from the tropics and require 80 to 100 percent humidity. Having the right tools and know-how to create an optimal environment is a must for pet owners; Creswell proved to be a font of knowledge and puts it to use.

The primary objectives of the center, which opened in September, are education and conservation. The founders also participate in the rehabilitation and re-release of endangered native animals and the rescue and placement of displaced pets.

Diet was a large focus of the workshop, since one of the biggest issues captive reptiles face is being fed improperly. He says that commercial diets for reptiles haven't come quite as far as those designed for domesticated pets, something that most people are not aware of.

"Commercial diets should be used as a supplement for what any reptile consumes. It should not be its core source of nourishment."

As the students prepared to handle the animals, Creswell continued to field questions and was impressed with their existing knowledge, as a couple of them have reptiles at home.

As Creswell gingerly brought an Argentinian boa from its enclosure, he demonstrated how to physically manage the snake (which measures several feet in length), what to look for when doing an examination and, most of all, keeping themselves and the animal safe. Snakes can bite, constrict, defecate and urinate on you — among other things.

After interacting with the boa, they students proceeded to get up close and personal with the Green Iguana and the Bearded Dragon.

Creswell made the caveats of handling lizards very clear: most of these animals prefer to not be handled, and they can hurt you — or be injured themselves. The safety of these creatures is paramount, of course, and in using proper technique and having confidence in handling them, these future veterinary professionals will have the knowledge they need to identify problems and help educate clients as well.

Creswell emphasized to the group that ethics is a big part of what he sees as his duty as a professional, and will be theirs, too.

"There are reputable breeders and professionals in the area of exotic pets, and they are working hard to ensure the viability of these animals and their future. But there is a dark side to breeding exotics."

A growing number of foreign exporters are using unscrupulous tactics to sell some amphibians and reptiles. People are discouraged from purchasing wild-caught reptiles, so less-than-ethical exporters are marketing some animals as "captive bred" or farmed, one term that Creswell indicates is used "very loosely."

What this often means, is that pregnant (gravid) females are captured in the wild, and penned until they lay their eggs — not falling under the category of "captive bred." A standard designation, U.S. Captive Bred and Born (USCBB) has been established in the field to help people understand what to look for.

One final topic that was brought up is how important it is that parents and children avoid catching wild creatures and keeping them as pets, and how detrimental it is to release reptiles and amphibians into the wild.

"Knowing how much of a responsibility and a commitment that it is to keep animals like this is one of the foundations of what we teach people," says Creswell.

One thing is certain: the zoological society demonstrates the work that goes into every keeping these animals in captivity, and some of the animals there illustrate the plight that can result from not understanding it. With the experience that these future professionals were able to take with them, the work that the organization does now will carry on well into the future.

In keeping with the facility's philosophy of education, they host classes, field trips and birthday parties and, of course, visitors. Click here for more information.

Lorrie Shaw is lead pets blogger for Connect with her on Google+ and follow her daily pet adventures or email her directly.


Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Dec 5, 2011 : 11:08 p.m.

That grumpy looking aquatic specimen doesn't look real happy about being part of the lesson. He "toad" them he didn't want to come.