Wild for Life

A day at a normal veterinarian’s office is filled with a procession of household pets—cats and dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, perhaps a ferret or even a bearded dragon. At Branford Veterinary Hospital, patients also include raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels and any number of avians, including a recent great horned owl that had gotten tangled in a soccer net.

The hospital, which opened in 1937 and has been owned and operated by Dr. Scott Gavaletz since 2008, has a history of treating wildlife. In 2005, staff found themselves confronted with an alligator that had been discovered in Youngs Pond. In that case, the hospital’s mission became finding a new, less risky home for the animal. Mystic Aquarium has sought out Gavaletz for help with their marine mammals, and he is often called upon by the Greater New Haven Animal Shelter to work with colonies of feral cats.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Having moved to New Haven at the age of five, Gavaletz considers himself a native. He attended Southern Connecticut State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in zoology and discovered his passion for animals, leading to his pursuit of a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida. His interest in wildlife medicine was piqued while working at Foxon Veterinary Hospital after graduation and before moving to Branford Vet.

Most veterinarians don’t treat wildlife, according to Gavaletz, but Branford Vet is specially prepared and equipped. All BVH staff who handle wildlife are rabies-vaccinated, have been trained in proper restraint techniques and are provided with specialized gear to maintain safety for the animals and themselves. Because wildlife also carry diseases such as scabies, encephalitis or distemper that can infect other patients, the design of Branford Vet’s new facility, which opened in 2018, includes a special isolation room where wildlife are treated. The room has separate heat controls, exhausted ventilation and equipment that is used solely in that area.

Wildlife present other unique challenges. Unlike household pets, the cause of a wild animal’s ailment or injury is seldom apparent. No one knew what had happened to a wild pheasant who was obviously ill, with her head down and eyes closed. Had she been poisoned by lead or rat bait? Did she have an infection? Was she injured by a hawk or a cat? In the face of this lack of information, BVH staff chose a broad-based approach that included fluids, pain meds and tube feeding and a warm, quiet place to rest. By the next day, much to everyone’s delight and relief, she was much more alert and eating on her own.

Some wildlife require a very specific approach. This was the case when a wildlife rehabilitator brought an osprey with a broken wing to BVH. Usually, a bird in this condition is considered unsavable, but the rehabber wanted to give treatment a try. “Wildlife do not tolerate casts or bandages… and typically require anesthesia to be properly handled,” Gavaletz explains. “So, any bandage has to be well-designed and placed right the first time.” Rather than using a cumbersome splint, a lightweight “figure-8” bandage was created that both stabilized the fracture and could be tolerated by the bird. This was carefully applied under anesthesia. The strategy succeeded and it wasn’t long before the osprey was ready for rehabilitation.

All referrals to BVH come from licensed rehabilitators and animal control officers. Gavaletz says that social media has been a boon for local rehabilitators who have formed a strong network enabling them to arrange for volunteers to pick up and transport animals in distress. He advises anyone who encounters a sick or injured animal not to touch them and instead contact a local animal control officer or rehabilitator through the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

As for the owl in the soccer goal, animal control was able to cut the net out around the bird but not the bird out from the net. That took the expertise and the anesthesia provided by the doctors and staff at Branford Veterinary Hospital.

Branford Veterinary Hospital
125 N Branford Rd, Branford (map)
Mon-Thurs 8am-6:30pm, Fri 8am-5:30pm, Sat 8am-noon
(203) 488-3949 | since1937@branfordveterinaryhospital.com
www.branfordveterinaryhospital.com

Written by Nancy McNicol. Images provided courtesy of the Branford Veterinary Hospital.

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Nancy McNicol is a retired librarian and former teacher who enjoys strolling around New Haven imagining its earlier days. But she’s just as happy curled up with her cat and a good book or playing with her grandson, Simon.

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