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First ever Teddy Bear Clinic held at Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo

Hundreds of young Calgarians got the chance to get their favourite stuffies a check-up from some of the pre-eminent experts in animal care on Saturday.

The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo held its first-ever Teddy Bear Clinic, which saw stuffies triaged by the zoo’s veterinary staff, given some TLC—some sewing, stitches, and stuffing where needed—followed by a prescription for extra hugs and bedtime stories.

Although undeniably cute, the event also had serious aspects about getting children more accustomed to going to medical appointments, feeling safe around medical professionals, and helping to share the zoo’s conservation messages.

“It’s the first time that we’ve held this clinic, but it’s something that has been in the works for a long time,” said Dr. Doug Whiteside, Head Veterinarian and specialist in zoological medicine at the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo.

“It’s a great way to celebrate the exceptional animal care and health care that the animals receive here. And it’s also a great way for us to actually honour the guests and the donors who actually make our work here so much easier.”

The event, something that had been discussed for nearly two decades by zoo staff as something they would like to do, was held after the veterinary medicine team decided that this year was the right one to hold it.

“We had been meeting actually for six months to figure out how we could do it in a way that was fun for the kiddos and informative for families, and obviously, made sure that our Animal Health Center team was available to still be dispatched if needed anywhere on the park for any emergency,” said Alison Archambault, Director for Brand and Engagement at the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo.

“This really is meant to give Calgarians an opportunity to see the transformative work that our veterinary teams do on a daily basis. We love and care for over 4,200 animals on park across 132 species. So there’s lots of work that goes on behind the scenes, quite literally, to make sure their health and where welfare is tended to.”

One of the young visitors to the Teddy Bear Clinic, Sydney, had her stuffy Flamingo stitched up by one of the zoo’s volunteers. Her dad Michael said that he was appreciative of the care that went into fixing some pulled-out threads on Flamingo’s beak making it as good as new.

“It’s really nice, the care that they spend, the time they spend on it. Very detailed oriented, and it was nice to see,” he said.

Archambault said that many of the staff who took part in the event did so by volunteering their time after what was a busy week at the zoo.

Long-term zoo volunteers, many of whom spend hundreds of hours stitching together the ornaments used during the annual Zoo Lights celebration, spent weeks collecting threads and buttons to best care for the stuffies.

The clinic was by $5 donation, with the money raised being used towards animal conservation efforts.

Dr. Doug Whiteside, Head Veterinarian (centre), gives Polly a checkup at The Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo’s first ever Teddy Bear Clinic on Saturday, October 21, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

A peak behind the curtain into veterinary medicine

Dr. Whiteside said that everyday care is never the same day twice.

“Medicine, obviously, is a very complex field and zoological medicine is even more complex. It’s a specialty, so all of us have advanced training in zoo medicine,” he said.

“We have a full-service hospital here at the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo, and that has all the facilities X rays, ultrasound, endoscopy… it really allows us to deliver the high-quality care that we need to here. Then we work with a myriad of other vendors, specialists, and sometimes human specialists as well to deliver exceptional veteran care to the animals here at the zoo.”

In 2022, there were 6,497 different veterinary care moments at the zoo, which included 2,950 procedures, 570 radiographs, 250 uses of anesthesia, 70 ultrasounds—and 2,657 prescriptions given out for the animals.

“For treating the various species, the first thing is to go back to your general principles. What are the closest related species in the domestic world help with that, and then because it’s a specialty, we’ve done all the extra years of training to become zoo veterinarians and zoo veteran technologists, we can use that knowledge to treat those animals,” said Dr. Whiteside.

“The other nice thing is that zoos are incredibly connected around the world. And so if we have an issue that we’ve never seen before, we don’t hesitate to reach out to our colleagues and others us who may have more experience with that to be able to deliver that access to exceptional care to our animals.”

He said that he hoped visitors to the Teddy Bear Clinic took away a new appreciation for veterinary medicine, and might even consider a career in the field themselves.

“I think it’s really important to introduce young kids to the veterinary profession from a young age so they actually can learn about it more, and maybe see it as a future career for them,” Whiteside said.

The other aspect of the education, he said, was to take the cross-species message about being protected against disease.

“I think one of the big things today we’ll talk about is the fact that we vaccinate our animals for various diseases. We have to protect a lot of our animals against flu-like diseases. We vaccinated against Covid, for example, in the past as well. So vaccinations are an important part of keeping our animal population healthy,” the doctor said.

“It’s sometimes a very short—very, very short little negative experience for a very big positive gains in the health of that animal. So, we want these kids to realize that it’s the same for them that they can do things to help protect themselves, getting themselves vaccinated, and then making sure that they practice good hygiene, washing their hands, and if they’re sick, staying home.”