What it’s like to be an aquarium veterinarian?

What It’s Like to Be an Aquarium Veterinarian? A Working Podcast Transcript.

What It’s Like to Be an Aquarium Veterinarian? A Working Podcast Transcript.

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May 31 2017 10:25 AM

The “How Does an Aquarium Veterinarian Work?” Transcript

The director of animal health at Baltimore’s National Aquarium talks about looking after hundreds of distinct species.

Heather Moran/National Aquarium
Leigh Clayton.

Heather Moran/National Aquarium

This is a transcript of the May 22 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

Jacob Brogan: This is Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on the show, we’re taking a trip to Baltimore to chat with some of its residents about the various ways they make a living there. We’re hoping to learn a little about the ways that Baltimore shapes their work and about the ways they’re shaping Baltimore by working.

When we first announced we were heading to Maryland for this series, many of our listeners wrote in to suggest that we visit the National Aquarium, one of Baltimore’s greatest highlights and we were happy to oblige. It’s a massive facility with thousands of organisms on display from sea turtles to sharks to dolphins. Unsurprisingly, keeping all those undersea animals healthy is a massive undertaking. To better understand how they pull it off, we spoke to Leigh Clayton, the aquarium’s director of animal health. Clayton explains how you tell when a fish is sick and leads us through the process of diagnosis and treatment. She also shares a particularly memorable surgery story and offers some practical tips for those who are looking to keep the fish in their home aquariums healthy. Of course, she speaks to the National Aquarium’s relationship with Baltimore more generally and its connection to the Chesapeake Bay. Then in a Slate Plus extra, Clayton tells us about working with my favorite animal, the octopus.

What is your name and what do you do?

Leigh Clayton: My name’s Leigh Clayton and I’m the director of animal health and welfare here at the National Aquarium.

Brogan: Can you tell us a little bit about what that entails? How many charges do you have? How many animals are you looking after?

Clayton: Right, yeah. The veterinary department here helps care for all of our animals, including our invertebrates. That’s about 15,000.

Brogan: That’s a lot of animals.

Clayton: It’s a lot of animals. I have about 800 different species.

Brogan: I assume the training you did can’t have prepared you to work with every single one of those animals. Was a lot of the learning on the job?

Clayton: Yes. This is really true for many veterinarians, though. You are able to take facts you know and approaches you know from one species and then apply it to similar species. It’s a really interesting combination of being able to get into the details but then also stay more broad and take what you know in a general approach and apply it in new and unique ways. Because one of the cool things about being an animal here on earth is that there’s a lot of continuity and similarities between species.

Brogan: Were there any real prominent differences that stood out when you started focusing more on marine wildlife?

Clayton: Yeah, I do remember when I was a vet student being like, “Oh my God, you can do surgery on a fish?” So I can relate when we have visitors come through, “You can take a fish out of water?” It’s like you have to reset because of course to us it’s like well, yeah. You have to remind yourself that is it kind of weird that, yes, we can take a fish out of water, and we’re careful to keep the gills moist, and that’s actually how we anesthetize them, and we keep their skin moist. But you can take a fish out of water and do surgery on it and return it and they can do great. Actually one of my favorite little cases is we had an intern who was able to go in and take a cyst, a really large cyst, off the liver of a fish that was part of a group that’s in the Black Tip Reef exhibit. It’s there now and it’s getting bigger and it’s still part of the school.

Brogan: The fish not the cyst.

Clayton: Yeah, exactly.

Brogan: The cyst is gone.

Clayton: The cyst is gone. Every time I go look at that exhibit, I think of our trainee and her ability to do this and our ability to help her do it and I do think it’s something that over time would have been problematic for this animal and we were able to fix it. And there’s the animal.

Brogan: This is probably a dumb question but how do you know when a fish is sick?

Clayton: Yeah, right, great question. Same way we know when other animals are sick. We often are looking for changes in their behavior and changes in how they look. When a fish isn’t feeling well, it often will change color a little bit. It may be darker or lighter than usual. Then if it’s a schooling fish rather than keeping up with the rest of the school it’s often lagging behind in a very consistent way. It may not be holding its fins in the right location, the right orientation. They’ll often clamp their fins in tight against their body and they can look as if they’re in pain. That’s real hard to appreciate in a fish but they’ll often sit there and they’re not really paying as much attention to the external environment. They’re not looking around as much, they’re not tracking movements as much, they’re turned inward. It actually looks very similar to if you or I were sick or if our dogs weren’t feeling well. They’re not up and active as much.

Brogan: Do those observations come to you from other, would the right word here be “keepers,” at the facility or is it you and your team who are making the rounds, keeping an eye on animals?

Clayton: We do both, but it’s really for the staff that take care of the animals daily, that’s part of what they are really experts in is knowing how the animals under their care go about their typical day. If there’s a variation from that, then they evaluate that variation and will be thinking, “Is this normal?” For instance, is the turtle basking more because she’s getting ready to lay eggs or is the turtle basking more because she’s not feeling well? That’s their area of expertise. Quite often we’ll come together and talk about it as a group and if we’re not sure, because for some animals you’re like, “Well, she lays eggs at this time every year” and we’re going to be like, “Well, she’s probably laying eggs.” If it’s a different time of year, then we would for that same animal probably do something like bring her over to our hospital area, do some blood work, do a complete physical exam, get X-rays, do an ultrasound much sooner.

Brogan: How do you work from those initial observations then to an actual diagnosis and a treatment plan?

Clayton: For a lot of us who work in zoos and aquariums and even vets working with pets, you’re exam really starts the minute you see the animal. You’re evaluating and looking at that picture compared to a mental image of what the animal should be looking like. Then we’ll often do a hands-on exam and then we’ll often do diagnostics.

Brogan: That’s palpative skills.

Clayton: Yes, you palpate, exactly, you get a heart rate, you listen to the heart, you listen for the gut sounds depending on what species you’re working with. You know our set panel of diagnostics is really blood work, X-ray, ultrasound.

Brogan: How do you X-ray a fish, though?

Clayton: Yep, we X-ray them the same way we do any animal. There’s an X-ray plate and there’s an X-ray unit that sends the X-rays. We’re all digital now so the plate is electronic, and then process that image and it comes up on a computer. You can take the fish out of water. For most fish, we actually have to sedate them a little bit and that makes them more calm.

Brogan: You said you do that through the gills?

Clayton: Yeah, so we put their anesthetic into the water that they’re in and it crosses the gills, into the bloodstream, and into the brain and they’ll go to sleep. We lift them out of the water and take our X-rays then put them back in.

Brogan: Presumably you’ve put them into a separate tank first so that it’s not putting other fish to sleep.

Clayton: Yeah, exactly. If we have a concern about a fish, we have transport containers and the aquarist takes water from the main area typically. With fish it’s very, very important that your water is consistent. Changes in the pH of the water or the temperature, those sorts of things, can really upset the fish’s physiology and hurt them so we’re very careful to match the water and make sure it’s the same water when we work with them. Yeah, most fish handle that amazingly well. I think you might think, “Oh, it would be so stressful,” and the majority of our animals, if they’re feeling OK, it’s pretty common that the aquarist is calling us that afternoon, “Well, he ate this afternoon.” I think for many animals, they roll with it just as we do. We don’t go to the doctor most of us and then we’re like, “Oh my God, that was so traumatic, I can’t eat for four days,” and for our animals it’s very, very similar. It’s something that happens and they’re like, “OK, that happened and here’s my food.”

Brogan: Are there any animals that are especially difficult to work with?

Clayton: You know humans, right, that’s always the answer. Humans tend to be the most complex to work out the social relationships and the negotiations and all of that.

Brogan: But here in the facility.

Clayton: Not our people, our people are great.

Brogan: Sure, sure, your people are great.

Clayton: For our animals I think our most challenging ones are the animals that are in our largest habitats. Some of them we train to come to us and participate in going into a stretcher or some other device so we can get them out. Others, that can be our limiting factor, is we can’t get our hands on them readily.

Brogan: Any specific ones that tend to be more difficult?

Clayton: Schooling fish, fast-swimming schooling fish are probably the hardest to work with as individuals.

Brogan: Because their whole evolutionary process is about evading capture.

Clayton: Yeah, exactly. Yep, absolutely.

Brogan: How do you relate to an animal as you’re going through this diagnostic process? Do you anthropomorphize it at all or are you really thinking in raw bio-scientific terms about it?

Clayton: You know, honestly I think we do both. We certainly talk about the animal’s emotional states and that is really important to us as we move through how we’re going to handle animals. We’re working with animals over years, we’re working with animals often as they age and go through into their geriatric years. It’s very similar to working with a pet where you start to, you know, what’s in the best interest of this animal? Does it have an issue that I can make better or does it have a problem that’s a chronic disease and so we’re looking at maybe doing less with it but we want to go into a discussion of its quality of life? How is this animal experiencing its day to day? We do have to make assumptions, but we do those based on monitoring behavior very carefully and being very familiar with what normal looks like for those animals.

Brogan: When you’re talking about the emotional state of an animal in your care, is there ever any risk that that kind of anthropomorphic, possibly necessary, but anthropomorphic relationship between an animal makes it harder to see the specificity of its own experience with its own finality?

Clayton: I think it’s possible whenever you are a person interacting with anything—your child, a spouse, your dog, your cat, an animal here. Trying to keep in mind, am I doing this for the animal or am I doing this for myself? Am I doing this really for my child or I’m doing this because it’s easiest for me and it’s what I want to do? Being aware of what you bring to the table, you can never fully escape from yourself, you are who you are and you’re bringing your experiences and expectations and fears and all the rest of it to the table with all of your interactions. Absolutely, is there risk of that for a veterinarian or a husbandry staff member here interacting with our animals? Sure there is because that’s the side effect of being a person. We have systems in place to try to make sure that we’re balancing that.

Brogan: Do you get emotionally invested in the animals?

Clayton: Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. For me, at least, it’s hard for me to feel as if I’m bringing my best without having a little bit of that. That’s also, you know, sometimes there’re cases where we’ll step back. Rarely now, maybe more when I was younger, because you do always need to be aware and you want to be in a system where somebody can tap you on the shoulder and be like, “Hey, wait.” The reality is it’s not ever too much of a problem. I think as vets you get very good at compartmentalizing. You’re doing a professional role and you act through that role. Where it comes in would be more with vet wellness, I guess. Making sure that if it was a challenging, emotional situation, you’re giving yourself the space to process that in a different location because if you don’t do that, if you’re not monitoring your own wellness, that can catch up with you. You know, that’s where you end up in trouble.

Brogan: I imagine that sometimes you must lose an animal, sometimes you probably can’t save them. What’s that like?

Clayton: It varies. Actually, today we examined an elderly nob-tailed gecko and she has had a slower decline and the keepers brought it to our attention. In evaluating her, she appears to have either cancer or some other internal problem. She’s very, very anemic, has almost no red blood cells. Today, we’re in the process of making that decision that for this animal in this context, we’re going to go ahead and—you can see I’m getting all—we’re going to go ahead and euthanize her. As a vet, there’s a piece of you that’s like, “I just want to try, I want to try the surgery,” but she has no red cells, we don’t really have a good blood transfusion option, she’s quite old, and in this case, it’s not in her best interest. She’s lived almost 10 years here I think, which is pretty long, very long for that particular species, and as you would with a pet, you sometimes make these decisions. It’s not right, and we’ll go ahead, and we’re working with the curator right now. That’s our day, we jump in and out of this all the time.

Brogan: Can you describe your working area? What does the actual veterinary facility surgery area, whatever it is, look like?

Clayton: Yeah, we actually do work throughout the building, which is one of the cool things about it.

Brogan: You don’t just have a dedicated medical bay?

Clayton: We don’t, yeah. We’ll do a lot of things right where the animals are but we do have what we call our surgery and it’s really our hospital treatment room. It’s a large room where we have all of our diagnostic equipment.

Brogan: X-ray.

Clayton: X-ray.

Brogan: Blood testing.

Clayton: Some of the blood testing. We’ve got an ultrasound machine there. Everything’s on wheels so that we can move it around, everything’s small. The advantages of modern technology, you can get amazing computing power in teeny-tiny devices. That’s because we often want to take it out and work with the animals. It’s one big room and the equipment is all around the edges and you would walk in and recognize things like needles and syringes and gloves and alcohol and all of the stuff you would normally see at a clinic.

Brogan: I assume, though, you also have lots more water accessible to keep things moist in there?

Clayton: We do, but we don’t have it in our surgery area per se. The water comes with the animals. If the animals are of a sufficient size, we go to the animal. We do a lot of home visits. It tends to work better for everybody.

Brogan: Yeah. You are wearing what look like scrubs.

Clayton: Yes.

Brogan: Is that your uniform?

Clayton: It’s my uniform.

Brogan: Were you actually in surgery?

Clayton: I was not actually doing surgery, no, but this is my uniform. We do perform surgeries here.

Brogan: Have there been any particularly memorable surgeries that you can tell us about?

Clayton: Yes. Let’s see, one of the more memorable ones. In a different gecko species, we had one that had a very large mass and this was many years ago now.

Brogan: You’re pointing to your neck, was it on its neck?

Clayton: I know, my neck, it had a neck mass. Yes, it had a ventral neck mass, a mass on the bottom part of its neck. We ultrasounded it and aspirated it and couldn’t quite figure out what it was and talked with the curator and the husbandry. We were like, “Let’s go in and try. We don’t know what it is and it’s obviously not normal, so let’s go in and try.” We went in and it was this big cystic structure and we’re like, “It looks like where the thyroid would be,” we’ve never heard about thyroid issues like this in a lizard and, “Oh, look, one of them popped out,” and we removed that and then there was this other mass and it popped out. It had this bilobed thyroid with these huge cystic weird structures and easy to get out and we closed it back up and sent them off for histology and the gecko recovered and did really well, but now it didn’t have any thyroid. We started him on thyroid supplementation as you would with a human.

Brogan: I am also on thyroid supplementation. I had my thyroid removed a few years ago so I relate to this gecko very much, yeah.

Clayton: There you go, so you can relate to the gecko. We don’t know what’ll happen, but let’s try and we’re using a medication that’s made for humans and we—

Brogan: Levothyroxine or something?

Clayton: Yes, exactly, we have to crush it up, you’re on it. We’re giving it to this gecko, and low and behold, it does great and we monitor its thyroid levels not from blood levels because A) we don’t have normals, and B) they’re really hard to bleed. We do it based on its heart rate and its shedding rate because those are two things that the thyroid helps to control. Experimenting for a while, we figured out what kept it most similar to the other geckos and that’s its dose and she’s still with us. It’s been, I don’t know, six, seven years, something like that. It’s been a while.

Brogan: How do you titrate the right dose of a thyroid medicine for it? I take a massive amount for some reason, 300 micrograms of this thing, but a gecko weighs a lot less than me. How much Levothyroxine do you give to a—

Clayton: Yeah, basically a couple of little drops. This is a perfect example of how you’re integrating all of this information. I don’t have anything that can tell me what the dose is for a gecko. I don’t have anything that really can tell me what the dose is for a lizard or even a reptile. We usually start with a dose that works in dogs and cats. We typically go to dogs and cats first or something like that. We look up the dose for cats or dogs and we go, “OK, we’ll start there.” We get in the tablets, the tablets we obviously can’t give to the gecko because that would be a huge overdose, so we crush the tablets up, we mix it into a suspension, and now the suspension has a set amount of mix per mill and we take the gecko’s weight and we take our desired dosage and then we divide it by the concentration and we have the amount we’re going to give the gecko.

We give it to the keepers and we say please give to your gecko every day and it’s something ridiculous, it’s less than a drop. If you’re used to a drop from a dropper for eye meds, it’s less than that by quite a bit. We start there and we monitor how our gecko does. Is the gecko up and active and eating? Does it seem overly hungry? Then maybe our dose is too high. Does it seem not hungry enough? Maybe our dose is too low? Is the heart rate where it should be or is the heart rate too low? Is the shedding frequency appropriate for that species? We went off of our knowledge of animals in general and then fine-tuned it for this animal in particular. We have to be careful because if she gets too heavy, we have to adjust the dose a little bit.

Brogan: That would be an indication that it was too low if they’re gaining weight.

Clayton: It could be too low or a new keeper came on and decided to feed her twice as often, maybe. The keepers are great, they get weekly weights on her and our veterinary interns, she’s on, I think, her fourth veterinary intern. They get her case and they go up once a month and they do a little physical and they get her heart rate and we double-check our dose is fine and we move on.

Brogan: How late are you here at night?

Clayton: It varies. Some days we leave at 5 or 6 and other days we’re here until 10 or 12.

Brogan: Are you ever on call late at night? Are there times when it’s like, “I got to get back to the aquarium for a shark emergency.”

Clayton: Yes, yes exactly, sometimes but that’s really, really infrequent. Honestly, things work, I need to knock on wood, usually things go fine. Occasionally we’ll have a rare case that we may be staying late for to monitor almost overnight but that’s pretty infrequent for us. We’re lucky that way.

Brogan: What happens when there is some kind of emergency in the middle of the day or whenever it is? What’s the information flow there?

Clayton: Yeah, things obviously come up at all times and we rely on the radio as a primary way of communicating with people and we—

Brogan: Do you keep one on you?

Clayton: Mm-hmm, yeah. Yes.

Brogan: There it is.

Clayton: We talk to each other on the radio as our primary way of reaching out instantly to try to notify somebody that something has changed. Then, if it has, we find a phone to have a more detailed conversation so we’re not on the radio talking about, taking up five minutes of radio time. Very often we’ll maybe grab some stuff and go up to where the emergency may be happening, at other situations we’ll determine it’s easiest for the husbandry staff to bring the animals over to the surgery area and work with them there. Most of the time it’s things that can be resolved with a conversation or they’re alerting us that something had changed and we’ll go do maybe a physical exam and decide this one’s OK, so we’ll get an appointment for it, basically. We mimic what you might see in a 24-hour clinic. We’ve got pieces of it that we’ll do emergency care and it’s like, “Drop everything and go deal with that,” but more often it’s “OK, well, this has happened and now we need to get an appointment.” Our appointments are usually in the morning between 9:30 and 11:00. We try to keep animal procedures in the morning and leave the afternoon free for rechecks and paperwork. It almost never works out that way but that’s the goal, do all this stuff in the morning and then write up about it and read about it in the afternoon.

Brogan: Is that stuff ever frustrating, having to do the real practical parts of the job?

Clayton: No, no. I have a great team so I have delegated parts of it. I look at it as that’s the cost of doing business. I’m part of a company, it’s not just up to me. I’ve got accountants who need what they need to do their job well to support the organization and I try to look at it holistically. When I say I need something and I like it when other people trust that I need that and they trust me enough to be like, “OK, Dr. Clayton needs that, here you go.” I try to give my colleagues in the organization the same, “All right, Megan in finance says she needs this, I’ll do it because I don’t understand finance.”

Brogan: Baltimore has this major harbor and bay, its water is essential to the city’s identity, as I understand. Does that connection shape the work that you all do here?

Clayton: I think it does. I think being part of the Chesapeake Bay is one of the neatest things about the aquarium here. We’ve gotten more and more ability to move into projects in this area because even within our own backyard there’s an immense amount we don’t know. For instance, one of the projects we are looking to begin this summer with our rescue group is to get a better understanding of how sea turtles use the upper Chesapeake Bay.

Brogan: Oh, wow.

Clayton: We understand more about how they use the lower Chesapeake, down by Virginia, where it connects with the Atlantic. We know they come up, not necessarily into the inner harbor at the point but fairly far up, certainly to the bridge. How are they here, what age classes are here, what are they doing here? We’re looking forward to beginning some of that work.

Brogan: Have you ever been in a position where you had to help a local animal that was in distress?

Clayton: Yeah. We do have an animal rescue group and that’s the other arm that I work with. We work with the Department of Natural Resources. When you’re doing—

Brogan: In Maryland …

Clayton: In Maryland. When you’re doing rescue work like that, when you’re working with endangered species and sea turtles and marine mammals, the permission to do that all comes from the federal government through NOAA for the marine mammals. We’re actually part of an amazing stranding network of facilities all up and down the coast and our regional one is from Virginia up through Maine.

Yeah, we work with sea turtles here, we work with sea turtles that may come in from our partner organizations. If they’re full and we have space, we’ll help them out and take animals and vice versa. We also do a lot of work with pinnapeds that way as well—seals, sorry, seals. The seal population as it’s recovering is moving further and further south and so we actually have a fair amount of harbor seals and gray seals off the Atlantic coastline. Those guys are starting to live here year-round. They used to just be seasonal visitors and now they’re overwintering here and we’ve got a number of young of the year that sometimes get in trouble. We try to give them a little bit of a helping hand.

Brogan: You said you work with terns as well, seabirds?

Clayton: No, sea turtles.

Brogan: Oh, OK.

Clayton: Yeah. We don’t do the birds at this point.

Brogan: OK. I misunderstood earlier, sorry. Is there an especially memorable rescue case that you’ve been a part of?

Clayton: Yeah, I think one of the more interesting ones we a sea turtle that came in with a very old wound on one of its flippers. It had fishing line wrapped around the upper limb and we made the decision that we couldn’t spare the limb. We amputated the limb and the turtle recovered very well and in talking with the federal government, typically they would not have historically allowed an animal with just three flippers to be released. But they’d been noting more and more that there were three-limbed sea turtles that did seem to be surviving, you know, from shark bites, natural problems out in the wild. We worked with them to make a determination to go ahead and try to release this animal and we put a satellite tag on her that was good for about 30 days, maybe a little bit longer, and documented that she seemed to be following the normal sea turtle path and seemed to be doing well at least for that time period. That was a neat one because we were able to help her but also able to work with the federal government to try something new. In general, our goal with these animals that come in is to turn them around as long as we think they’re going to have a good quality of life.

Brogan: Has working here shaped your sense of Baltimore at all?

Clayton: Yeah, I definitely think it has. I’m from Massachusetts so I hadn’t spent much time here and I think being at the aquarium, you see the students come in and you see people come in and you see how excited they get and how you can get them to understand a little bit more about the natural world that they live in even right here in Maryland. One of my favorite areas is our native habitat and we’ve got a stream exhibit that’s mimicking a little stream that you might see out in the mountains and we’ve got a marsh exhibit and you get this progression of where water goes from up in the mountains out to the ocean.

I do sometimes like to sit there and point out the bullfrog and the terrapin and the little turtles and see people get really excited about that and begin to get them to understand that this can be in their backyard if we start making ... They’re challenging efforts but begin to make those efforts to try to create a world where people and the nonhuman animals can all live together and how do we do this? Same with out here in the harbor, we’ve got actually a lot of animals out there. There’s a lot of fish that live in there and it’s fun to point those out. You’ll be walking along and you can look, down there, there’s fish and they’re what, oh my God. People have no idea, they think it’s dead and it’s not, it’s alive.

Brogan: Do you have any tips for home-aquarium keepers to keep their fish alive?

Clayton: Take care of the water. If you take care of the water well and the water is healthy, your fish will often thrive. You have to think a step removed from the animal. You’re thinking about its environment.

Brogan: What’s the best way to make sure the water is appropriately …?

Clayton: Do get your little water-chemistry testing kit from the pet shop or online and make sure that particularly your ammonia and pH are trending where they should. Understand the needs of the fish that you’re putting into your community tank. If you can get experts at the pet store or online now, there’s some good fish forums, and I would highly recommend planning it out ahead of time. When you’re working with animals you don’t necessarily want to wing it. Winging it often doesn’t work out well for the animals.

Brogan: Do you keep fish yourself at home?

Clayton: I don’t, actually. I just have dogs. People ask me what the easiest animals are and I think, kind of dogs. Maybe cats.

Brogan: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Clayton: You’re welcome. Thank you for coming in and seeing the aquarium as part of your Baltimore visit.

Brogan: I am so delighted that we were able to, I loved it so much. Thank you.

Clayton: Good, thank you.

* * *

Brogan: In this Slate Plus extra, Leigh Clayton talks about what it’s like to work with octopuses. I’m in love with octopuses.

Clayton: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Brogan: Have you ever worked on an octopus?

Clayton: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Brogan: What’s that like?

Clayton: Yes.

Brogan: There we’re talking about an animal that is so different from us. They have a brain that’s wrapped around their esophagus, ganglions on every one of their little suckers.

Clayton: Yeah, exactly.

Brogan: Totally bizarre anatomy relative, to say, a gecko.

Clayton: Yeah, exactly.

Brogan: Which at least looks like a horse.

Clayton: Right, yeah, it has four limbs, not eight. We do work with the octopus. As you mentioned, as they get older they’ll go into senescence and their cells start not working very well and they’ll start to get injuries more easily or they’ll have some behavioral changes in them. They’re more prone to getting infections. So we’ve found that as they’re entering that, oftentimes infections are a problem for them and sometimes we need to put them on antibiotics and it’s very similar. We get used to working with our individuals, we get used to working with a species, we might talk to colleagues who have worked with a novel species.

Brogan: At other facilities?

Clayton: At other facilities, yeah. The zoo/aquarium vet community is a very tight—“tight-knit” implies that you don’t talk to others—but it’s a very supportive community where there’s open information sharing and that’s another thing I think I really like about the community, is people are very, very supportive. Most people are very willing to share their knowledge, give other people the spotlight. They’re very open that way, but octopuses are interesting because they are actually a species that does seem to have very distinct personalities. I don’t know if you know, for the scientists who are studying personality and what it means and where it comes from, they’re often doing that with zebra fish models.

Brogan: Interesting.

Clayton: Yeah, and there’s a lot of work on what are “base personalities,” across all species—can we describe base personalities, and you have exploratory or fearful—how does all of this come together? Octopuses are very similar, some of our octopuses seem to be very outgoing and gregarious and like to interact with things and others are a bit more solitary. Ours are trained, typically, and they’ll come up to the surface and they’ll interact on the surface so it’s actually fairly easy to do an exam on them and look at what the beak looks like and what do the eyes look like and how are the tentacles and how strong are they. If there’s a wound, can we see it, how big is it?

Brogan: Do those personality differences, those shape how you approach treatment?

Clayton: They can. Yeah, personality differences can shape treatment not just for octopus. If you have animals that are really interactive, we might pick treatment options that are more involved. If we have animals that are very standoffish or not interactive, we would look for treatment options that are not as involved. In general, we try to go with the treatment option that interrupts the animal’s normal day the least. When we can use oral meds, we like to use oral medications. If that isn’t appropriate or the animal is really ill and we don’t think that’s going to work, we’ll use injections.