Exclusive interview with the Vet on the Loose!
Romain Pizzi’s days at work are different to most of our routines. Very different. When he is not performing keyhole surgery on bears in Laos for Free the Bears or training wild life vets in Sri Lanka, the face of Community Channel’s ‘Vet on the Loose’ is the wildlife vet for the Scottish SPCA Wildlife Rescue Centre, and a specialist veterinary surgeon for The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Edinburgh Zoo. The show follows him around the UK as he treats an abundance of animals ranging from tarantulas, tigers to ordinary house pets. We asked him a few questions to know more about his extraordinary activities and along the way got inspired by his message of respect and appreciation of animals.
What made you want to focus your practice of Veterinary Science mainly on zoo animals and wild animals?
I have always been fascinated by animals. Having been born and grown up in South Africa, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a great diversity of wildlife. As a teenager I ended up helping to treat and rehabilitate wild birds, and so being a wildlife vet always seemed to be the path I wanted to go down. Finishing my veterinary studies I was torn between my love of wildlife and surgery, and very fortunately have ended up doing both.
Out of all the animals you have treated, which experience was the most memorable?
I am privileged to have had so many, all over the world. Many of the most rewarding are treating and releasing injured native wild animals such as otters, sea eagles, and ospreys back to the wild here in Scotland, where I live. However, probably my most memorable trip was to operate on an orangutan that had been rescued in Borneo. We performed the world’s first keyhole surgery in a wild orangutan, and this was all successful and she was able to be released later. Most of the week long trip was taken by travelling, as the smoke from burning of the forest was so severe flights in much of Indonesia were not running, so I went everywhere by boat. I could see firsthand the devastation that the palm oil industry was having on the forest and animals such as orangutans, all for us to have cheap chocolate and biscuits and the like. On my last day, we went to rescue a starving orangutan hanging high in the only still standing tree in a large area that had been illegally logged for palm oil plantation, and this made me incredibly sad. Although she was fine, there is less and less forest left, and my grandchildren may never see so many of the amazing wild animal species I have been privileged to work with, as humans seem incapable of looking after the planet.
What’s your favorite animal? And do you own any animals?
I have so many animals (both individuals and species) that I like, and I am privileged to have treated everything from endangered Tahitian snails to wild elephants. The better you understand something the more you respect it; from tarantulas (did you know the females can live more than 30 years, and they "see" their prey by detecting air movement with hairs on their legs?!), to penguins (who recognise me in the zoo, and know if I am carrying my vet box or not (and so likely to treat them!), I really can't choose just one.
Do you remember the first time you operated on a wild animal?
The very first animal I ever put under anesthesia, as a vet school student, wasn't a dog or cat, but an African hunting dog (I prefer the name painted wolf for these amazing animals). This is one of the privileges of growing up, and studying to be a vet in South Africa.
Have you ever been scared of performing surgery on any animals?
Yes, many times, but the fear is never for myself being killed or injured, but instead for the patient. Even when trying one’s best, there are always risks, from the anesthesia, the surgery not being successful, or the animal not recovering well. Probably the most nerve-racking was performing brain surgery in a rescued Moon Bear in Laos for Free The Bears, as this was such high risk surgery, and poor Champa, the bear, was suffering so badly until we could perform the surgery.
Do you approach treatment of wild animals in the zoo the same way you approach wild animals not in captivity?
I work with both zoo animals, as well as completely wild animals that are injured and need to be returned to the wild. While it makes sense they may be similar, in truth they are completely different. In zoos we have a responsibility to ensure the highest possible welfare for the animals, and often they act as a genetic ark for endangered species, but a three legged wolf can often do just fine in captivity. With truly wild animals they have to be absolutely perfect or they will not be able to cope on their return to the wild and will starve or be killed. The vet has a great responsibility not to release animals that would not survive and would suffer, and sadly this means I do have to humanely euthanised animals that are too badly injured to maimed to ever survive release.
Why is it important to treat animals in zoos? And in wildlife?
As in Le Petit Prince by Saint-Exupéry, you become forever responsible for that you have tamed. While a tiger in a zoo may appear wild, it has been born and grown up there, and often times would never be able to survive in the wild. As for any animal looked after by people, whether a dog or a pony, we have a responsibility to take as good care as possible of it, and ensure all its needs are met, including its health and welfare. For truly wild animals, and I treated almost 4,000 last year, we too have a responsibility, as most of the cases I see are caused by humans (hit by cars, shot, pollution, fishing line, poisoned, etc). Of course death is a natural part of life, and we can't save everything, but we do I feel have a moral responsibility to treat those animals that are directly injured by the actions of humans.
Be sure to catch Vet on the Loose tonight and every night this week at 6.30pm on Community Channel and every Saturday and Sunday from 8th April at 9pm.