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Creature Feature : Duty and the Beasts

“Cynthia,” asks the animal keeper, “you want to come in here and flirt with Louis?” Cynthia is Dr. Cynthia Stringfield, one of four veterinarians at the L.A. Zoo. Louis in orangutan with heart troubles and an attitude.

The zoo folks are trying to get Louis used to giving blood samples. It’s a gradual process, and today they’re at step one: getting Louis to put his arm in a restraint. Louis prefers step zero. The keeper is hoping that Cynthia can persuade Louis, who has a crush on the vet, to change his mind. Stringfield offers some soothing words, and Louis soon places his hand in the restraint. The actual blood drawing will wait for another day.

Flirting with an ailing ape is just one chore in a day in the life of a zoo vet. She’ll also prescribe a modified diet for a constipated lion, peer up the nose of a black rhino suffering from a sinus infection (cooing “Nice boy” all the while) and use a crook to nab a cobra while another vet checks the snake, which recently had a tumor removed.

Her job is a bit like being a physician--on the Starship Enterprise. Her patients are as different from each other as an Earthling is from a Tribble. A hummingbird’s heart beats so fast “you can’t count the beats, unless they are sick. Pythons have such sluggish hearts that sometimes you can’t hear them at all.” Stringfield, who got her vet’s degree at UC Davis and worked at Marine World-Africa USA in Vallejo, needs to know that snakes sense their world mainly through their tongues, bats through their sonar, and that leopards have one stomach, giraffes have four.

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“We used to joke in vet school about how lucky doctors are to have only one species to take care of,” says Stringfield. “We deal with rhinos and cobras and all these things. But that’s what I like about the job. It’s the ultimate in diversity.”


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