Alumni magazines

“Exotic pets,” for the Veterinary School of the University of Pennsylvania

If you go to a pet store and fall madly in love with an iguana, know that iguanas require UV lighting and temperatures up to 110°. Avoid the clerk’s encouragement to buy your pet a mate – iguanas prefer solitude. That 10-gallon aquarium is only good for about a year, after which the critter outgrows it, if not your entire apartment.

Unfortunately, most people who acquire exotic pets are clueless, and therein hangs this tale. (Tail?)

In January VHUP opened the Special Species Medicine Clinic. “‘Exotics’ sounds too exotic,” says Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS, ABVP-Avian, director of special species medicine, which treats all house pets beyond dogs and cats: ferrets (the third-most popular pets in the country), rabbits, reptiles and birds, for starters.

“Everyone know that if you spay or neuter a dog or cat, the animal will be calmer,” says Rosenthal. But if you impulse-buy an iguana, you might not realize that, as the male becomes sexually active at about age one, it may bite the hand that feeds it.

While most veterinarians can handle the medical and surgical needs of cats and dogs, they may be less conversant with the nutritional needs of, say, a Solomon Island boa. But Evelyn Ivey, DVM, and Rosenthal each spent two years in residencies in special species, followed by continuing ed – either teaching or learning.

Special species are heir to afflictions that dogs and cats don’t get, says Rosenthal, who recently met a hedgehog with a severe neurological disease. “Normally, when you pet a hedgehog, it curls into a ball. But this guy couldn’t do that any more. It could not walk or blink its eyes.” She ordered a CAT scan of the hedgehog’s brain. Results were inconclusive, but, then, no textbook has 30 photos of hedgehog CAT scans. Perhaps no one has ever scanned a hedgehog.

Even the husbandry of special species is different. “With dogs and cats, all you have to know is whether to let them out of the house. The grocery-store aisle of packaged foods is fine for healthy pets. But with exotics, that’s rarely the case. We don’t even know the nutritional requirements of many birds we treat. Most commercial rabbit pellets are not healthy foods.” The lesson, she says, is that people with special pets need special vets.

The clincher is that most veterinary practices don’t have access to ancillary help, such as clinical lab techs, and a cadre of orthopedic surgeons, radiologists and so forth.

The special species clinic features cages with adjustable heaters. It provides emergency service only for pets that it has already seen.

People get as attached to these animals as they do to Fifi and Fido, says Rosenthal, but exotics often require a financial investment. So owners may be even more eager for a cure, or at least a diagnosis. One of her first VHUP patients in the new clinic was a hyacinth macaw with a wound on its back. She determined that the bird was healthy and would heal on its own. She wished the bird adieu. Its owner can return at any time.

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A tough cookie handles tough, high-profile cases for Thomas Jefferson University

Q. What do these people have in common?

  • John W. Hinckley, Jr., attempted assassin of President Reagan
  • Jim Bakker, disgraced televangelist
  • Theodore Kaczynski, Unabomber

A. They all underwent psychiatric evaluation by Sally Johnson, M.D., (class of 1976), forensic psychiatrist par excellence. Johnson is chief of psychiatric services and associate warden for health services at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C. She teaches at Duke in both the law school and the medical center.

Defense lawyers said Kaczynski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and feared the label mentally ill. Prosecutors countered that he was competent to stand trial. Kaczynski, who attempted suicide more than once and consistently refused to be examined by government psychiatrists, eventually capitulated and underwent an evaluation by Johnson. He hoped to be found competent to act as his own trial attorney.

Johnson deemed Kaczynski competent. Her report to the judge linked Kaczynski’s mental illness and the Unabom campaign. “Consistent with other individuals with persecutory types of delusions,” she wrote, “he is resentful and angry and fantasizes and actually does resort to violence against those individuals and organizations that he believes are hurting him.”

Sally Johnson’s colleagues think her skills are superb. John Monahan, psychologist and law professor at the University of Virginia, says, “There’s no question that the judge in the Kaczynski case chose [a forensic psychiatrist] well. Dr. Johnson is among the leading forensic psychiatrists in the country. She’s known for thorough evaluations and balanced judgments. If anybody is up to this particularly challenging evaluation, Sally Johnson is.” And Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. solicitor general and a professor at Duke Law School, says he has known few lawyers or physicians who were able to combine the necessary professional detachment with the “general sense of humanity” that he sees in Johnson.

“So many people who go into this field are show people,” says Dr. Keith Brodie, former chairman of the psychiatry department of Duke and former president of the university. “They’re flamboyant.” He calls Johnson “very low key, unflappable, not pushy.”

Her evaluations often make Page One of the New York Times.

And while she obviously spends hours asking endless questions of patients, she avoids answering same. “She’s very intent about maintaining her professional integrity,” her husband, William Johnson, a lawyer and a vice president of Carolina Power & Light, tells the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer. “She says ‘No’ to Ted Koppel. She never has given interviews and probably never will. And she will divorce me if I do.”

While studying at Jeff, Johnson took a public health scholarship, which required two years of payback. She took her residency at Duke University, where she had a brief experience with prison populations. She scheduled her public-health service after residency and chose the bureau of prisons for payback.

“Clearly prisons are an area of need in psychiatry,” says Johnson, who refuses Koppel but consents to an interview with her alma mater. “Prisons have a population of individuals who are under-served. In a prison, you can feel you can make a difference. What I like about the field has changed over time. My interest in psychiatry has always been in the treatment of psychosis. In prisons, certainly, you have ample opportunity to see patients and to follow them over an extended time – which is something you rarely get to do in the general community. Here you get to watch the development of illness over time, which is fascinating from a clinical standpoint.”

Many patients resist treatment, she says. “One challenge is trying to deliver healthcare services in a system where healthcare is not the primary mission. It’s necessary – assuring that the healthcare needs of prisoners are met – but it’s not the major focus.” Johnson also consults with prison systems around the country on establishing training programs and patient-care programs.

Look for Sally Johnson’s name in the paper next time a high-profile criminal pops up.

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