A hospital dispenses tender loving care to patients big and small, scaled, feathered, furred and hooved, tame and not.
By JANET ZINK
Published March 12, 2004
BLOOMINGDALE - Pish the fish had a problem. He swam upside down.
But his owners, who won the fish three years earlier at a carnival, wanted Pish right side up.
Enter Clarence Dunning, a veterinarian from Care Animal Hospital with a love for all things great and small. Dunning performed a delicate, $800 surgery to take a look at Pish's swim bladder.
He put anesthesia in the water and monitored Pish's vitals by watching the movement and color of his gills.
Turns out, Pish had a bacterial infection and his swim bladder had ruptured. There was no helping him. He finished out his final few weeks upside down, an underwater commentary on the beauty of being different. Still, the family was grateful for Dunning's efforts.
"They felt if there was anything they could do, they wanted to do it," said Dunning, who is a backup veterinarian for the Florida Aquarium. "The attachments people form with their pets, not just dogs and cats, are very strong, whether it's birds, fish or ferrets."
On most days, ordinary cats and dogs parade into the examination rooms at Care Animal Hospital.
But as physicians on call for the Ringling Brothers circus and with an equine surgery center and birds-of-prey rehabilitation center on its 10-acre site, the hospital caters to a clientele that would make Noah proud.
Vets have performed a Caesarean section for an elephant, monitored the pregnancy of a scorpion, and amputated the damaged wing of a vulture.
When Richard Kane opened the practice in 1987, the staff consisted of him and a high school student working as his office assistant.
Over the years, Kane has expanded services.
The equine surgery center includes a workout slab for treating horses with bad legs, a stall for animals with contagious diseases that has cameras so the horses can be monitored from a nurses' station, a stall for artificial insemination, and a hoist for horses with brain damage and spinal cord injuries that need physical therapy.
An emergency power source will keep the facility going for six hours in case of an electrical failure.
Kane recently added a small-animal surgical suite and converted the old operating room into two exam rooms.
Eventually, Kane wants to turn the back portion of his property into pasture land for recovering horses.
With those resources at his disposal, Kane gets all kinds of calls, including a recent request from Ringling Brothers to bring his 3-meter video endoscope to their Kissimmee facility so he could snake it through an elephant's trunk and look at the animal's insides.
Today, Kane heads a team of 10 veterinarians and 50 staff members, including wildlife specialist Michelle Sandburg.
It's Sandburg's job each day to serve frozen rats to the birds in the recently built birds-of-prey rehabilitation center.
The current tenants include an owl with a broken wing, another with neurological damaged caused by ingesting rat poisoning, and a hawk with a bum foot that's missing part of a wing.
Wildlife rescue is a big part of Care's mission.
Aurora, a one-eyed owl who accompanies Sandburg to educational outreach programs, spends her days in a cage in the clinic. A year ago, Aurora traveled via several fire trucks from the Pasco County line to Care Animal Hospital.
On a recent Wednesday, Sandburg oversaw the delivery of pain medication to a red fox that was found in a swimming pool. Red foxes, Sandburg said, are among her favorite patients.
"They get a bad rap," she said. "They're not aggressive at all."
The fox, Kane said, is likely to be released into the wild. That's the goal for all the wild animals that come to the hospital. Sometimes, it's as many as 75 a month, Kane said. Often, though, Kane sends them to rescue facilities like the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Pinellas County or the Nature's Classroom program in Hillsborough County.
Providing medical care to wild animals is a tricky business, Kane said. There's no one to pay for it, and Kane has applied for financial assistance from the government without success.
The Florida Freshwater Fish and Game Commission monitors populations of animals, he said, but when a single creature faces injury or death, it's considered nature's way of controlling populations.
"But I've got all these people that want to help these animals," Kane said. "We do it."
Turtles, bobcats, foxes and birds. They've all passed through Care's doors.
"Most of the injuries we see are man-made injuries. The majority are hit by cars and gunshots and tree trimmings," Kane said. "Our existence causes other animals to suffer, and we're trying to do something about it."
Kane is best known, perhaps, for the equine surgery center.
He said he opened the facility in 1995 after one of his own horses died on the way to Gainesville for an emergency procedure. He didn't want any other horse owners to go through that.
A few weeks ago, just after midnight, Gayle Sikes rushed her thoroughbred, Klassy, from Riverview to Care Animal Hospital. Her horse was bloated and suffering from colic, the No. 1 equine killer. The disorder occurs when an animal eats something it can't digest. Like an oyster making a pearl, a hard material grows around the foreign substance and eventually blocks the horse's digestive tract.
Surgeons worked on Klassy through the night. By early morning, she was resting comfortably in a stall while IV fluids dripped into her body and Sikes held two fist-sized rocks taken from Klassy's belly.
"It's amazing you could take an animal this big and do a surgery and have him stabilized a few hours later," Kane said. "No matter how miserable and tired you are, it's amazing that you can do this."
Plant City veterinarian Larry Bailey, with whom Kane worked just after graduation from the University of Florida veterinary school, regularly sends over horses.
"It's a huge resource," Bailey said. "If they were not in this area, then the next closest facility of that type is Ocala or the university at Gainesville."
Closeness often makes a difference.
"It's like most things when you're dealing with medicine," Bailey said. "The sooner you treat the problem, the more likely you are to have a successful outcome."
Kane, a man of boundless energy whose terrier, Spurrier, follows him around the clinic, calls caring for animals a calling.