Star Turn

May 28, 1999

An 18-kilo python with septicaemia? No problem for Edinburgh Zoo's veterinary surgeon Anna Meredith. Olga Wojtas met her

Zaila Dunbar has an excellent bedside manner, picking up the patient and giving her a cuddle.

"Hello, poppet! Oh, you smell nice!" she tells Bramble the guinea pig. Ms Dunbar is a final-year veterinary sciences student at Edinburgh University, which has just opened an elegant purpose-built hospital for small animals, the largest of its kind in the country. Among United Kingdom veterinary schools, Edinburgh's students have an unrivalled exposure to what are classed as "exotic animals" - effectively, any animal which is not a dog or cat. Anna Meredith, head of exotic animal services at the hospital, and the veterinary surgeon for Edinburgh Zoo, gives students a range of opportunities for work on exotic animals during their course. This includes practice for final-year students in consultations at her hospital clinics. "I think they need the experience of a real-life consultation. I feel vets aren't taught anything about client communication."

Initially, she leaves the group of four students alone with the client and patient. "If I'm in the room, they find it a bit intimidating. I ask them to take a history. Often they miss out loads of things, but I think they remember it better than just listening to me. Then I come back and if they've missed anything I pick it up."

Bramble is having a check-up after an operation. The students ask about her diet and habits, and check on the incision. When Ms Meredith returns, she decides the incision needs more glue to secure it, enlisting the help of a student. "Don't get any on your finger, please. The main thing to do is not glue yourself to the guinea pig," she says. "I glued a student to a pigeon once. It was a very rare, valuable pigeon with a student's finger glued to the top of its head. I had to cut it off with a scalpel."

The next patient is an iguana with a blocked nostril, left in a kitbag to minimise stress while the students take its history. Its owner keeps a number of reptiles and obviously looks after them well. But many illnesses stem from bad husbandry, Ms Meredith says. "It's really important that students go out with at least some knowledge of these pets. An iguana needs ultraviolet light, a vegetarian diet and nutritional supplement."

Handling the 18-kilo python is more problematic. It has septicaemia, the result of being left in an unheated room, and the hospital staff want to give it an ultrasound scan to see whether any of its organs have been affected. It is easier to bring the scanner to the snake than the snake to the scanner, but it takes all four students to remove it from the incubator and keep it on the floor. "When he's upset, he's very, very strong. I had to unwrap a student the other week," says Ms Meredith.

The last patient of the afternoon is Treacle the tortoise who has kidney problems. Ms Meredith decides to take a blood sample, and student Carl Eden correctly suggests going for the jugular.

"Left or right?" Ms Meredith demands. Samples are always taken from the right jugular vein in birds, but can be taken from either side in tortoises. But Treacle is refusing to emerge from her shell, and Ms Meredith begins the slow process of prising out the tortoise's head with her finger and thumb. "This is the fun bit," she says. "They have a very strong neck. But their neck muscles usually give up before my finger muscles."

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