Veterinarian focuses on caring for exotic animals


FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. -- Stephanie James came to the Berkshires from a zoo -- the Pittsburgh Zoo, where she served as medical director.

Now on the staff of the Sand Road Animal Hospital here, she is developing an exotic animal practice as well as caring for pets and livestock, small and large.

Owners David and Cindy Sanderfer hired her last year as a replacement veterinarian and obtained, as a bonus, a doctor with a zoo background.

Her journey was a long one. She didn't begin veterinary studies until after college.

"I was having too much fun," she admits.

A psychology major at Haverford College, she became enamored with caring for animals as a paid volunteer at the Trevor Zoo, a veterinary clinic attached to the Millbrook School in the Hudson Valley where she taught after graduating.

Most small animal veterinarians treat dogs and cats and perhaps a rabbit or two, usually on the site of the clinic. A large animal veterinarian will make house calls and tend to horses, cows, goats, and other livestock too big to transport in a car. But a zoo vet is something else. And that was where James' experience was leading her.

She enrolled in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. There, in a part-time job at the Minnesota Zoo, she met one of the major mentors in her life, Peregrine "Peri" Wolff, director of animal health.

Although Wolff found James enthusiastic and smart, her medical skills were not yet impressive. She agreed to hire her, but gave her photocopying to do. She moved up to serving coffee, until she was finally allowed to assist with necropsies (animal autopsies).

Feeling she was on a definite career path, James applied for a one-year residency at the Bronx Zoo, where she lived at the zoo health center and was on call 24/7.

She published scientific papers, did field-conservation work, and, as a clinician, was assigned the task of hand-raising a baby gorilla.

"There was a young gorilla that was not doing too well," she recalled. "We anesthetized the mom, pulled the week-old baby away for 24 hours, put him in a human incubator and treated him medically. He was used to being held so I took him home to my apartment and cuddled him all night.

"It sounds wonderful, but it was a friggin' long night. I re-introduced him to his mom in the morning and he was accepted. No problems after that."

Returning to the Bronx Zoo in 2001 as one of the four clinicians, she was put in charge of the daily care of all the animals.

"You learn on the job," she said. "The technical staff is hugely important to the success of the zoo."

To the layman, zoo medicine may seem exciting, but it's not easy.

According to James:

Giraffes? "Minimal diagnostics."

Elephants? "Challenging!"

Lions? "Dangerous!"

And imagine trying to treat a rhino that is feeling under the weather.

Breeding animals in captivity is one of the great challenges zoos face.

James told of raising, in captivity, a litter of African wild painted dogs.

"The mother died three days after whelping and we had to hand-rear nine puppies. We lost four. In the wild and in captivity, the mortality rate is at least 50 per cent. Practicing holistic and conventional medicine, four puppies survived and have gone on to breed. I am very proud of that."

"Zoos are educators," she went on. "They teach people about a wild world that most will only see on TV. The animals are ambassadors for their species and their lives are enriched. They get excellent medical care and don't have to work for their food or worry about predators.

Nine years at the Bronx Zoo was enough, however.

The Pittsburgh Zoo offered her a job as medical director and for a year and a half, her journey took a slightly different direction. The focus there was more on management than on hands-on care. That ultimately shaped her decision to leave.

"I really want to be a hands-on vet," she said.

That realization led her to the Berkshires, where she plans to stay.

"I love working here," she said of the Sanderfers' hospital. "It's a high-quality practice that provides excellent service to the community. Dr. Sanderfer is the most compassionate and ethical person I've ever worked with."

"Usually,"Sanderfer said, "people are resistant to placing their old pets in the hands of a new vet, but Stephanie is breaking that mold. I couldn't be more pleased with having her here."

Jill Hetson, a client with a 1 1/2 year old pit-bull mix, found James to be "thorough, knowledgeable and kind. I've seen all the vets here and they're all really good, but Dr. James so impressed me that I now only go to her."

Building on James' experience with wild animals, Sanderfers launched an exotic-animal clinic for ferrets, birds, reptiles and small mammals.

A special ward has been built that is quiet and away from the barking hubbub of the main clinic building.

Already, at the suggestion of the Audubon Society, a man brought in a sick snowy owl that he thought might have West Nile virus.

The diagnosis continues.


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