Science: New ways to treat prickly customers: Angela Wilkes visits a wildlife hospital where modern drugs and techniques have been adapted to save animal lives

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The Independent Culture
Wild animals don't make good patients. Foxes eat their drips, bagders with nerve damage bite off their own feet, deer and some birds of prey drop dead for no apparent reason. Many survivors make ungrateful convalescents, biting the hand that cares for them. Les Stocker, an animal expert, singles out herons and badgers as particularly hard to handle. Injured herons try to skewer their rescuer's eyes. Badgers have the worst bite of any British mammal, a bone-crushing vice that feels like a car door slamming on your hand.

Mr Stocker is founder of St Tiggywinkles, Europe's first wildlife teaching hospital, where staff are pushing back medicine's frontiers in ways undreamt of by the Royal College of Surgeons. Keyhole surgery, fibre optics, ultrasound scanning and X-rays are among the methods soon to be pioneered here. Existing facilities at the hospital in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, include a purpose-built operating theatre, intensive care unit, acute ward and convalescent wing.

Conservative estimates put the number of wild animals injured in Britain each year at five million. Some 10,000 of these pass through St Tiggywinkles and about eight out of ten are rehabilitated. Yet, until quite recently, Les Stocker says, most sick and damaged animals were doomed to be 'put out of their misery'. More advanced painkillers and sedatives mean that this need no longer happen.

Sue Stocker, who runs St Tiggywinkles with her husband, her son Colin, seven full-time staff and many volunteers, confirms that many neighbourhood vets give up on wildlife. 'The bulk of their practice is domestic cats and dogs. They might lose four wildlife patients in a row and conclude that you can't save wildlife.' Their mistake, the Stockers say, is that they operate too soon. What St Tiggywinkles has discovered is the importance of 'stabilising' injured animals: no examination under anaesthetic or intervention takes place until this has happened.

Stabilisation can take three or four days. Many animals are in more danger from dehydration than from their original wounds. A young roe or muntjac deer may have suffered a jaw-smashing blow from a passing car, but still have summoned enough adrenalin to shoot off into the undergrowth. A badger or fox can lie concussed and in shock for hours, then die of exposure. The first priority is often a plasma drip to increase blood volume and rehydrating electrolytes. Many wild animals need long-acting sedatives just to survive long enough to be treated. Stress can kill deer and some birds. They suffer from a syndrome called post-capture myopathy and can die of heart failure up to a fortnight after their original trauma and caging. Stress means carbon dioxide is not cleared from the circulatory system and the blood becomes too acid. Organs, particularly muscles, break down.

Echoes of human medicine abound, from the drugs used - antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and anabolic steroids - to the backgrounds of the staff. Chief veterinary nurse Sara Goodwin recently joined from a nursing job in intensive care. Vet John Lewis, who honed his skills on rhinos, elephants and giraffes in Africa, did a PhD on human bowel cancer. Much of the equipment is hospital surplus. When a local maternity unit closed, St Tiggywinkles picked up trolleys, tubes and an anaesthetic machine for pounds 150. Some items, such as the glucose saline drip bags, are now rare in the NHS. Others, such as the plastic surgeon's magnifying glasses and the paediatric canulas, are bang up to date.

The former come into their own for filleting bone fragments from a rabbit's or a hedgehog's shattered sinuses. The small-scale canulas are used to administer anaesthetic gas to hedgehogs. This has to be done quickly, before the animal rolls up. And there's a special Stocker adaptation for baby hedgehogs: a plastic syringe cap which acts as a full-face anaesthetic mask. Surgical superglue as a substitute for stitching has also made the transition from human to animal practice. Stocker uses it to repair bats' wings. 'The membrane is fine and tears very easily, so it's usually best to poke back any projecting bone and seal the gap with glue.'

A high proportion of the wildlife hospital's patients are traffic casualties. Until recently, these would never have been

considered candidates for resuscitation. Injured badgers, for example, were traditionally shot where they lay because they were considered too dangerous to handle, even by animal welfare agencies. Even now, hospital staff prefer to go out to badger casualties themselves. 'I've known many cases of kindly motorists putting a poleaxed badger in the back, or in the boot, thinking it was probably dead anyway, then having the animal go berserk inside the car. I had to untangle one from dashboard wiring once,' Les Stocker recalls.

Artificial limbs and spare-part surgery are on the horizon at St Tiggywinkles. A deer may receive a wooden foot on a fused ankle joint. Birds injured in a factory explosion had the beaks of dead companions temporarily grafted on to their heads. Thousands of roosting birds, mainly starlings and pigeons, died in the searing heat and those that survived lost their beaks, which consist of keratin similar in structure to that in hair and nails. Les Stocker gathered a box of undamaged beaks from the carnage and superglued them on to the stubs of survivors. New keratin eventually grew, pushing off the prostheses, and 100 starlings were released.

Two particular products have revolutionised animal medicine. One is an expensive anaesthetic gas ( pounds 50 for a small bottle) which has improved the survival rate of birds undergoing operations. 'With the old gases, heart and breathing would stop together,' John Lewis says. 'But with Isoflurane, the breathing stops first and there's time before the heart ceases beating to withdraw the anaesthetic. Usually, the bird starts breathing again unaided.'

Many recuperations are the result of a premixed wound dressing (called Intrasite) which counters infection and provides ideal conditions for granulation, the first stage of scar tissue formation. 'It looks like wallpaper paste and you wham it into open wounds, where it absorbs all the muck and helps healing,' says Lewis. 'I first discovered it when treating a cheetah with a broken bone sticking out of its leg that wouldn't heal. Then I used it for elephants with bloody great fight holes in their sides. It was ideal for them because they insist on packing dung into their injuries.'

A few years ago, a young badger was admitted with a severe head injury. He had lost a third of his brain, but was still functioning, says Les Stocker. The patient was successfully operated on at Glasgow Veterinary College, where a brain abscess was removed. Sadly, the badger died while recuperating. 'It must have tossed its head one night and a splinter of bone from its fractured skull severed a neck artery,' Stocker says.

Otherwise, he believes, the animal could have been released after six months. Badgers' bones are thick and heavy, he explains. They have a solid sagittal crest of bone atop their skulls, and their jaws are permanently joined to the rest of the skull. They are, says Stocker, built like bulldozers. 'We have had two badger casualties which were hit head-on by trains. Both survived and were released. Recovery may be very slow - over many months - in such head injury cases. Badgers improve a bit of their body at a time, but as long as there is improvement from the start there is hope.'

Both Stocker and Lewis agree that wild animals recover well because of one main difference from domesticated species - what Stocker calls 'attitude'. 'Wild animals may initially be more difficult to treat because you can't soothe them. You can't pat them on the head and say: 'There, there, boy'. But once a wild animal starts on the road to recovery, it will get better far quicker than a pet.' John Lewis agrees that wild animals are tough. 'They're much more resilient than domesticated species, and just need to be given a chance.'

A child, adult or company can adopt a wildlife patient at St Tiggywinkles. Costs range from pounds 10 for a duck, hedgehog or rabbit to pounds 30 for a deer, badger or swan. For details of adoption schemes and rehabilitation training courses, send an SAE to The Wildlife Hospital Trust, Aston Road, Haddenham, Aylesbury, Bucks HP17 7NY (tel 0844 292292). Les Stocker's book 'St Tiggywinkles Wildcare Handbook - First Aid and Care for Wildlife' is published by Chatto & Windus at pounds 9.99.

(Photograph omitted)