Animal magic

Dr Katherine Quesenberry is the exotic-pet specialist at the forefront of our changing relationship with animals.

Writer Pauline Eiferman

Photographer Weston Wells

In the waiting room of the Animal Medical Center in New York, Ally paces back and forth on her perch. The drive here was long and the 23-year-old blue-fronted Amazon parrot – her cage bundled up in a sweater and anchored to her owner’s lap – is agitated. Ally had a stroke a few years ago. Though she recovered from it, she’s now showing new signs of illness and was referred to the centre by a veterinarian for a second opinion. Minutes later, in the examination room, Dr Katherine Quesenberry, the centre’s director of the avian and exotics service, delicately inspects Ally as she flutters her wings and caws.

Today is a bird day. Dr Quesenberry, an elegant and serene woman whose soft-spoken accent reveals a slight southern twang, has already seen a sad little parakeet earlier this morning. His owner explained the bird couldn’t hop on to and play its favourite musical instrument because of a lame leg. In the afternoon another 23-year-old parrot, Pancho, is scheduled for a CT scan.

Dr Quesenberry practises exotic pet medicine, meaning she sees anything other than cats and dogs, be it tarantulas, rats, birds, gerbils, guinea pigs or monkeys. It’s a field that has changed tremendously since she started working here in 1984. Birds, her true passion, have always been popular patients but she used to see a lot more monkeys and ferrets. Those pets have largely been replaced by rabbits (she saw one this morning for its first check-up) as well as smaller furry animals and reptiles. Red-eared sliders are also common, she says, because people see them for sale in Chinatown and want to rescue them.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, approximately one in 10 American households owns an exotic pet. These animals, Dr Quesenberry explains, need special attention, especially when it comes to diet. “You can’t get bearded-dragon food at the grocery store for example,” she says. “You have to do a lit tle more research into what’s proper. Same thing with turtles and tortoises.”

‘In Western societies, pets now enjoy an elevated status. In 2013, Americans spent nearly $56bn (€45bn) on their pets’

Yes, bearded dragons. The small lizards are very popular in New York – and, indeed, the rest of the country – because, contrary to what their name suggests, they’re docile, gentle pets. One of them, Tangerine, currently resides on the third floor of the Animal Medical Center in New York, which houses the exotics department. That’s where Dr Quesenberry preps her next patient, Pancho, the red-crowned Amazon parrot, for his scan: a routine examination that would never have been carried out on a bird just five years ago. That’s partly because of technological and scientific advancements but it’s also because our attitude to pets is changing.

In western societies, pets now enjoy an elevated status. In 2013, Americans spent nearly $56bn (€45bn) on their animal, according to the American Pet Products Association. In 2014 it’s estimated that the number will reach $58.5bn (€47bn), including more than $15bn (€12bn) on vet care. Pets that would, in the past, have been put down are now having their lives saved at huge expense. In late 2014, a vet in Melbourne performed the world’s first operation to remove a brain tumour from a goldfish.

It’s a trend that Dr Quesenberry is noticing, too. “I had a man yesterday come in with a hamster,” she says. “This person looked like he worked on Wall Street, I mean he had beautiful clothes on, a young guy in his thir ties, and he brought this tiny little hamster.”

A procedure on a hamster can cost between $150 and $300 (€120 and €240). But when money is brought up, Dr Quesenberry says a lot of clients don’t care what it costs. Their priorities tend to lie on what they can do and if the animal is suffering – up to a certain point. “There’s usually a limit at $5,000 or $10,000 [€4,000 or €8,000]. But some people will absolutely put it on a payment plan,” she says.

How did it come to this and what does it say about us? Low fertility rates could explain why we, as a society, are spending much more time and money on pets than ever before. Whether couples choose to have fewer children or none at all, “the drive to nurture hasn’t gone away”, says Margo DeMello, director of the human-animal studies programme at the Animals and Society Institute, adding that each of her dogs, cats and rabbits bring her something different. The fact that rabbits were domesticated much later by man, for example, means they have retained more of their wild characteristics, just like guinea pigs. Birds such as Ally and Pancho, on the other hand, can be great companions for older adults and don’t need much day-to-day care.

“We tend to define pets as family members,” says Clinton R Sanders, a sociologist and the author of Understanding Dogs: Living and Working with Canine Companions. “Animal companions, be they dogs or iguanas, are socially available, seem to enjoy being with us, are non-judgmental, provide an outlet for nurturing, help to fill time and are the focus of love. What it says about us is that we need these elements in our lives and that some of the traditional sources can be more problematic or a mixed blessing than our interactions and relationships with non-human animals.”

In 1997, during the first-ever rabbits-only (as in topic, not attendees; we have not gone that far yet) veterinary conference organised by the House Rabbit Society, veterinarians spoke of a time when they were taught rabbits had no feelings. Today, Dr Quesenberry and her staff can talk about success stories such as Daisy’s, a three-year-old guinea pig who regained a taste for life after she had surgery to remove an infected toe. Science is developing in parallel to mentalities. “I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about making provisions for their birds in their will,” says Dr Quesenberry.

One of the things she’s most excited about in her field are the advancements made in diagnostic imaging. The Animal Medical Center is already a leader thanks to its radiology equipment but it’s also the first veterinary facility in the world to implement a complete interventional service that includes radiology and endoscopy (used for humans until now). It’s important to her because unlike the cardiologists, ophthalmologists and other specialists who work at the centre, Dr Quesenberry sees the whole gamut of health problems when it comes to exotics. From a hamster with heart disease to a parrot with cataracts or a rabbit with a broken leg, improving imaging will help professionals like her understand the anatomy of animals better and how disease affects them.

Up on the seventh floor, she and her staff meticulously strap Pancho, now sedated, to the CT scanner. As they close the door for the X-ray to start, Quesenberry stands behind the monitor. Radiographs indicating a serious condition, perhaps cancer, appear on the screen. After a thorough scan, she walks downstairs to meet privately with the bird’s owner. The department does surgery on birds but procedures are delicate and anaesthesia can be complicated. Still, Pancho’s owner, a young woman from New York, says she wants to try something. She just can’t put Pancho to sleep yet.

With cutting-edge commentary, long-form articles and fresh thinking from the Monocle editorial team, The Forecast is a new annual packed with key insights into the year ahead. We’ve commissioned a range of correspondents, business minds, historians, urbanists and diplomats to offer their views on everything from balance-shifting defence systems to fresh benchmarks in city planning. With presentation paramount, The Forecast’s mix of assessments, photo essays, illustrated portfolios and reportage are put together across more than 240 pages of fine Finnish paper to provide an essential companion for 2015.

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