Iguana Care At the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine , Manhattan.
For the duck with egg problems and the iguana with a troubled snout, Dr. Anthony Pilny is a ray of hope. He treats exotic pets at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Dr. Anthony Pilny started the day short-handed: A colleague at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine was bitten by an iguana while making her morning rounds.
An iguana’s mouth contains around 100 tiny serrated teeth. The other vet went off to the urgent care clinic to get stitches, leaving Dr. Pilny to do an enormously messy piece of gynecological surgery on a duck without an assisting doctor.
The duck was out cold on the table in a basement operating room, a breathing tube stuck down her bill. Dr. Pilny sliced open her abdominal cavity and rooted around.
“What is this?” he asked. “I’m seeing some sort of fluid-filled saclike structures. I see free egg yolk in her body.”
There was little time to ponder the situation. On this Thursday morning not long ago, patients were stacked up in their cages: a guinea pig with hair loss, a rabbit unable to move its bowels, and the irascible iguana, now relaxing behind a sign that said “Use Caution Lunges.” Others waited in recovery: a hedgehog newly minus one eyeball, and a chinchilla who sacrificed a leg to the bars of her cage.
The center, on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is the city’s only exclusively exotic animal hospital. “Exotic” in the veterinary trade simply means all pets except cats and dogs. The center treats anything else that comes in the door and weighs under 50 pounds. Most of the patients are rabbits, rodents, lizards or birds, but they can get pretty exotic: kinkajous, alligators, flower horn fish and prairie dogs. So can their problems.
“I’ve been an avian and exotic vet since 2004,” Dr. Pilny said, “and every day I say, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Many of the center’s patients are not legal in New York City, sometimes for good reason. “I’m not a big fan of people keeping a lot of the animals that come in here,” Dr. Pilny said.
But the center asks no questions and passes no judgments. It is not the pet police.
“We don’t report anybody,” Dr. Pilny said. “We just provide medical care.”
Dino, the 3-year-old white duck on the operating table, was a longtime patient. In 2015, she lost her ability to form eggshells, and unlaid eggs built up inside her. Dr. Pilny removed most of her reproductive hardware but left her ovary because taking it out could make her bleed to death.
“Most birds when you take out the reproductive tract, they stop ovulating,” Dr. Pilny said. “This duck decided to break the rules.”
Dino has other health issues. Her egg problems led to calcium deficiency, weak bones and a fractured leg. She could no longer walk.
“She can crawl around on towels, but otherwise we have to carry her everywhere,” said her owner, E. J. Orbe, a ballroom dance instructor from Paterson, N.J.
Some people might hesitate to invest $1,200 in gynecological surgery on a lame duck. But Dino has a job: She’s a seeing-eye duck for another of Mr. Orbe’s ducks, Penguin, who is blind. “She finds food and water and makes noises, and Penguin would come over and start eating,” Mr. Orbe said.
Inside Dino, Dr. Pilny was hacking his way through a sea of yolky blobs. “It’s just a very extensive, severe amount of schmutz in here,” he said to the veterinary technician, Kristine Castillo. A clamp on Dino’s webbed foot fed her vital signs to a monitor. Her heartbeat pounded through the cheap speaker like a tom-tom drum: thwap-thwap, thwap-thwap.
Dr. Pilny explained as he cut: After Dino’s earlier surgery, the yolks she produced fell loose inside her body and formed cysts that attached themselves to various organs. There were hundreds. He removed some of them and drained others that were too stuck.
“Now comes the part where I try to do something risky and just hope it’s right,” he said. He tied off the blood supply to the oviduct. “Please, duck,” he said.
A cyst burst at the touch of his blade and sprayed yellow fluid toward his face. He did not flinch. The technician called for more gauze pads.
“Everything just bleeds and bleeds and bleeds!” Dr. Pilny said.
The surgery ground into its second hour. The hospital’s practice manager, Lorelei Tibbetts, poked her head into the small, beeping, thumping operating room. It was about Snorri, the constipated white rabbit. “He’s looking at me miserably, like he has a balloon in his belly,” she said. “Should we try laser?”
Dr. Pilny told her to hang on. A blood vessel burst. “That wasn’t good,” he said. He cut and sewed, cut and sewed. The bleeding stopped. Dr. Pilny decided he had done all he could for one day.
Ms. Tibbetts came around again. “You closing?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Dr. Pilny said.
“Are you happy?”
“Am I ever happy?”
Dr. Pilny, 44, is one of three veterinarians at the center. He has a tattoo of a crane on one arm, a finch on the other, and a puffin on the back of his leg. He wears a tropical-theme surgical cap with parrots and green leaves on it. He is particularly fond of birds; he has 15 of them. He saves brightly colored feathers from his patients in a desk drawer in the hospital office and periodically sends them to an organization called Feathers for Native Americans. They are for American Indians who require naturally molted plumage for their headdresses.
Dr. Pilny grew up in the Bronx, went to veterinary school at the University of Florida and specialized in exotics because he likes to see the insides of different kinds of animals and enjoys a challenge. But medicine is medicine.
“Sometimes you look heroic and you save the animal’s life and the little girl is happy,” he said. Sometimes the patient dies. Mostly, the results fall somewhere in between.
The center opened 12 years ago, spun off from Animal General, a hospital two doors down. Though the city’s biggest pet hospital, the Animal Medical Center on the Upper East Side, treats plenty of exotics, Animal General’s owners thought there was a place for a stand-alone practice where predator-prey interaction was kept to a minimum.
“One of the ideas is that cats and birds don’t mix,” said Karen Heidgerd, the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine’s administrator.
The cheery vibe in the reception area would not be possible in the presence of cats and dogs. Bright-beak finches flit in the window. The center’s resident rabbits nibble sprigs of hay in an alcove by the front desk.
The center sees about 10 patients on a typical day. While there are no statistics on ownership of exotic pets in New York (especially illegal ones), Ms. Tibbetts said that more owners seemed to be seeking medical care.
“In the past, they were just considered ‘caged pets’ and most people didn’t even consider taking them to the vet,” she said. Most owners do not carry insurance, though it is available, Dr. Pilny said.
Dr. Pilny’s next surgery was an ovariohysterectomy on a guinea pig. Her owners had brought her in because she was losing fur on her flanks. Dr. Pilny noticed that the fur loss was identical on both sides. Symmetrical alopecia is caused by a hormonal imbalance, which was probably in turn caused by ovarian cysts. Cut, snip, slice, sew, done. Fifteen minutes.
Ms. Tibbetts poked her head in again. “What did you find?” she asked.
“Nothing too exciting,” Dr. Pilny said. “A little cyst on the left ovary, a little inflammation.” He admired his handiwork.
“The thing that matters most to the owners is how they look when they pick them up from surgery,” Dr. Pilny said. “No matter how lifesaving or complicated the surgery, what matters is when they pick the pet up and say, ‘Look at that incision.’”
Dr. Pilny ate lunch at his desk. He called the duck’s owner and told him the surgery had gone reasonably well.