Ill parrot shows dearth of care for exotic pets

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Winslow Phillips was working in the yard the last Saturday of April when his wife fetched him: She'd been cleaning the bird's cage when the African gray parrot fell.

Phillips, who will soon turn 72, hurried to the side of the parrot who had "been like a daughter" to him for 33 years.

At first, Phillips says, Susie returned to her perch in the cage that always sat in front of the picture window, with a view of the spacious countryside behind the Phillips' home. But then she went downhill.

Susie was Winslow's bird; she didn't seem to like Linda, Winslow's wife, even though she would mimic her to the point Winslow sometimes thought Linda was the one sneezing in another room, when it would turn out to be the bird.

Winslow's desperate attempts to save the bird led him directly into a national issue, with veterinarians agreeing there is a dearth of care options for exotic pets.

As Winslow tells the story, he called Gilmer Park Animal Clinic, not far from the Winslows' south-side home. They had twice boarded Susie there when they had gone on vacation and knew those veterinarians were among a handful in the area who treat birds and exotic pets. A recording directed them to the Emergency Animal Clinic on Grape Road in Mishawaka.

Phillips tells the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1fUuPBH ) that when he called the emergency clinic that Saturday night, he was told no one there could treat the bird, either, and they could not contact a veterinarian at Gilmer Park on his behalf.

He was referred to Purdue, but in his distraught state, how could he drive that far? he asks.

Sunday morning, Susie seemed no better. Phillips drove to Gilmer Park, where he saw a woman through a fence tending to dogs in the kennel. He says he begged her to call one of the veterinarians, and she refused. Phillips also called the retired veterinarian who started the clinic at home to see whether he would contact one of the newer owners, but he would not.

Growing more angry and distraught, he called the emergency clinic again Sunday to no avail.

Phillips tried nursing Susie with honey and water and to keep her calm, but nothing worked. When he woke early Monday, she had died.

"The No. 1 thing is, she actually received no hope, no heart from anyone I talked to, and that's so sad," Phillips says a few days later, still choking up at the memory of the bird who had lived with the couple and their menagerie of beloved pets since she was 8 months old. "I can honestly say, and I believe this with all my heart, when I'm on my deathbed, she will be on my heart."

Yet officials at the clinics where Phillips tried to find help for Susie say the man was so angry that he bordered on being verbally abusive to their staff, and the Emergency Animal Clinic tried to point him toward a Purdue campus only about an hour away -- rather than the main West Lafayette campus 2½ hours away -- but the distraught man hung up the phone before complete information could be given to him.

And the veterinarians defend the after-hours system they say assures the animal doctors quality of life.

Dr. Ken Kaucic, who owns the Gilmer Park Animal Clinic on U.S. 31 with his wife, said last week, "We just don't have the capacity to be open 24 hours."

His clinic, like virtually every other veterinary practice in the region, lists the Emergency Animal Clinic on its website and cites it in after-hours voice mail as an option for patients.

Sometimes, he says, he will refer a current patient with ongoing care to the emergency clinic with instructions for the clinic's doctors to call for consultation over a weekend or at night. "Most vets in this town work 60 to 70 hours a week already," he says.

The area is too small to support a practice for solely birds and exotic animals, Kaucic says, although such practices exist in Indianapolis and Chicago. Fewer people are seeking veterinary care for those animals, he says, although he doesn't think fewer of those pets are owned; it's possible people are more reluctant to seek medical care for them for financial reasons.

Phillips "terrified" his employees by yelling at them about the situation, he says. "He had no right to take it out on them.

"I feel bad for him," Kaucic says. "I think it could have been handled differently."

Dr. Carl Watters, a local veterinarian who owned the Emergency Animal Clinic and now acts as its part-time hospital director since retiring about two years ago, says two of that clinic's three full-time practicing veterinarians do treat birds, but they were not working when Phillips was seeking help.

"It's kind of like when somebody calls -- and they do all the time -- with a horse," Watters says of animals other than the run-of-the-mill cats and dogs. "We don't do horses."

Right now, he says, only one clinic in town has given the emergency clinic permission to call their doctors at home after hours. He thinks the conversation with other veterinarians about when they are willing to be consulted is probably worth revisiting.

"They deserve lives. They work sometimes 10 to 14 hours a day," Watters says of veterinarians.

Watters recalls 30-some years ago when many local veterinarians covered their own emergencies. Over time, some tried different options to cover after-hours work, including rotating weekends.

The Emergency Animal Clinic set up shop in 1998 on Indiana 23 in South Bend and more recently moved to its Grape Road location, operating as an independent clinic with its own staff. Other emergency clinics operate in Westville and Fort Wayne, Watters says.

Emergency clinics, which usually charge more because of the nature of the work, don't perform every facet of veterinary medicine. Watters says the staff will stabilize orthopedic cases and refer follow-up care elsewhere, for instance.

"We can't be everything to everyone," he says, acknowledging that pet owners are often overcome by emotion when taking their animals to a clinic in an emergency.

"They're attached to 'em, they're their pets, they're a part of their family," Watters says of the animals.

'God has his reasons'

Dr. Julie Davis, a large-animal veterinarian and chair of the public relations committee of the Indiana Veterinary Medical Association, is thoughtful about the scenario just described to her.

"That's a really tough call because every community can't have an expert in African gray parrots," Davis says over the phone. "We're fortunate to have a place like Purdue. ... Unfortunately, it's often easier to transport the pet than to transport the expertise."

Davis, who's the equine representative on the IVMA, says she guesses that in her four-county area of the state -- between Muncie and Richmond -- only two vets work on birds. One thing owners of more exotic pets should keep in mind when taking them in is where emergency care would be available and what those costs would be.

When she's not available for her large-animal clients, Davis says, she refers to a veterinarian about an hour away.

"I'm sure for that gentleman, it doesn't matter," Davis says of the practical considerations of limited after-hours care. "He's brokenhearted, of course."

For Winslow Phillips and his wife, who don't have children, perhaps that grief is even more acute.

Since he spotted Susie in Town and Country Shopping Center on Dec. 31, 1981, Phillips says, "God just meant for it to happen."

Susie would whistle and chatter, like a human: "Are you watching TV?"; "Izzy, did you get your food?" she'd ask one of the dogs; "I'm a pretty bird!"

Because such parrots can live for decades, if Susie outlived him, Phillips planned to leave her with the residents of Southfield Village retirement home.

"I think she could have been saved and I wouldn't have lost her," he says. "God has his reasons, and I do feel this. ... I hope something changes so another family doesn't go through the same thing."

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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