Lions, tigers, elephants and bears are routine patients for Dr. Jackie Gai, director of veterinary services for the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Since graduating from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2001, Dr. Gai has followed her passion for zoo medicine by working at the wildlife sanctuary with animals rescued from exotic and performing animal trades.

Sometimes, providing the best medical care for these large wild animals means reaching out to colleagues at the UC Davis veterinary hospital for advice, an extra pair of helping hands or expertise in a particular field.

“They are always generous with their time and available for consultation,” Dr. Gai said. “As the PAWS facility has evolved, UC Davis clinicians have helped elevate the care we provide at the sanctuary.”

A few weeks ago, Dr. Gai asked Dr. Ray Wack, chief of the Zoological Medicine Service, for assistance with anesthesia for Sawyer, a 9-year-old Bengal hybrid tiger for a routine spay. She had been rescued from a roadside zoo in Colorado where they were breeding tigers to produce cubs for photo shoots.

Dr. Gai points out those cubs grow quickly and soon become too unruly for tourist photos, so they are dumped back into the breeding pool. Unfortunately, this practice has led to a lot of inbreeding in captive populations.

“There are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than in all of the wild,” Dr. Gai stated.

The problem is, none of these roadside zoos or other programs have any conservation value. They exist to exploit the animals, and this is bad for the welfare of the species as a whole, Dr. Gai said. When tigers are rescued from these type of situations, they often need to be neutered or spayed.

Dr. Grant Whitten, a resident in the Anesthesia/Critical Patient Care Service, helped with the procedure in PAWS’ new veterinary hospital—the Pat Derby Animal Wellness Center—based on their 2,300-acre site in San Andreas, California.

“It was really wonderful to have Dr. Whitten here,” said Dr. Gai. “He had the chance to learn more about anesthesia in tigers and in return, he taught us different ways of monitoring anesthesia and evaluating blood pressure and vital signs during the surgery.”

In another recent case, Sampson—a black bear—had stopped eating well, and Dr. Gai was concerned he may have had an intestinal blockage. Dr. Rachel Pollard of the Diagnostic Imaging Service went to PAWS to help with an ultrasound that was able to rule out any major obstruction and need for immediate surgery.

Thanks to the advanced imaging provided by Dr. Pollard, the team was able to take a “wait and see” approach rather than risk surgery. A bland diet seemed to work after about a week, and Sampson recovered. Dr. Gai said it was reassuring to have Dr. Pollard’s expertise in reading the ultrasound and helped avoid a possibly dangerous procedure for Sampson.

PAWS’ captive wildlife sanctuaries provide professional, lifetime care for 18 tigers, eight elephants, eight bears, and a number of other species, many of whom come from situations of cruelty and neglect.

“It is an honor and a privilege to provide veterinary care to these deserving patients, and I am grateful for the support that we receive from colleagues at the UC Davis veterinary hospital,” Dr. Gai said.

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