For Dr. Mike Murray, the Aquarium's veterinarian, these avian stare-downs are as routine as regurgitation. In his second-floor lab, he sees a Galapagos' worth of animals from Monterey Bay and around the world, for their regular health exams. It's a time-honored ritual that's not unlike your own annual physical. But with more actual squawking.
"We have a preventative medical program for almost everything in our collection," says Dr. Mike. "I see our otters three to four times per year. I see our Laysanalbatross, Makana, twice each year. Other large birds, turtles and fish get checked, too."
It's an ongoing parade of wet, weird, waddling, and wonderful animals. Many of the interactions are fun-but not all of them. This is because Dr. Mike's job description includes things like drawing blood and probing their forbidden zones.
Some of the animals don't like him. A few may even hate him. But one thing is sure: they need him.
Not Your Average Medical Exam
The penguin parade that you see here includes a few dozen birds, requires four people and occupies a full day. One person transports the birds, another handles them on the examination table, and yet one more acts as "scribe," recording all the data. "I examine the birds from the tips of their beaks to the tips of their toes," says Dr. Mike.
"For a vet, examining poop is like divining the essence of the universe. Where there are no words, there is poop."
Some birds resist. Or try to run away. Sometimes, they nip. Dr. Mike estimates he's been bitten half a dozen times. "Most humans don't like to go to the physician, either," he says. "But if you stay calm and move slowly, the birds will tolerate it."
Poop: a View to the Center of the Universe
Lest you think the job is all glamour, there's this: "I spend a fair amount of time looking at poop," says Dr. Mike. This is because feces are the tea leaves of the veterinary trade. For a vet, examining poop is a little like peering into a wormhole and divining the essence of the universe. Birds, and most animals, cannot explain a malady-squawks, grunts, howls, it's all a Tower of Babel. But where there are no words, there is poop.
"Everything comes out of one hole," says Dr. Mike. "The color and quantity can give you an idea of the health of the renal system, the intestinal system, the liver, nutrition and hydration."
Or, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot by just looking. For Dr. Mike, there is simply no bottom to the topic.
A Dream Job. Sort of.
Everyone wants to be Dr. Mike. After all, don't you? You get to ply your trade on the ocean's edge. You put stethoscopes on fuzzy otter pups. You're on a first-name basis with a couple of dozen penguins. Giant sea turtles want to give you a hug.
And of course, you get to save lives.
"Everyone wants to be Dr. Mike. Until you get called into work at 7 p.m. on a Saturday."
Turns out, those are the good parts. "Then there are the times, at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, when you get called in to work," says Dr. Mike. "Everything else you had planned goes out the window. My wife has had to become very patient. I frequently have to tell her we're not going out for that nice dinner we had planned. Something has come up at the Aquarium-and we're going to Burger King instead.
"But I realize I have an ethical responsibility to these animals. And I take that very seriously."
And that's the thing about being the Aquarium's vet. Despite the poop, the puncture wounds, the squawking, the Saturday midnight calls to come to the aid of an ailing auklet, and the occasionally disheartening task of doing an autopsy on an octogenarian sea otter, it's an awesome responsibility-and an awesomely good time.
In other words, it's all part of the job.
"I like everything I do," says the good doctor with his famously mischievous grin.
"At the end of the day, I've got one of best jobs on planet."
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