Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Como Zoo Vet Retires after 45 Years

We recently said goodbye to Ralph "Doc" Farnsworth who has retired from Como Zoo and the Unversity of Minnesota School of Veternariy Science.

Star Tribune Story - July 7, 2008

From Como Zoo vet to volunteer

CHRIS HAVENS, Star Tribune
The gorillas probably won't miss Ralph Farnsworth all that much.
Just seeing the veterinarian in his khaki hat walking toward their home at the Como Zoo gets them riled and banging on the glass. When he showed up, they knew they were about to be prodded and maybe stuck with a needle or two.

They'll be resting easier now because Doc, as he's known around the St. Paul zoo, retired last week after more than 40 years of treating the animals.
"I'm old enough," the 71-year-old veterinarian said. "You've got to quit sometime. Might as well do it while I'm in good enough health."

Yes, he still has all of his fingers and toes and a few memories of close calls. His patients have included birds, sea lions and giraffes. He prefers larger animals, despite his smaller stature.
His career didn't come with much of a handbook, so he forged ahead using common sense, intestinal fortitude and animal tranquilizers.

The problem with working with zoo animals, he said, is simple: If you get hurt, you probably get killed.

Farnsworth never liked to get bit, said zoo curator John Dee, who started at Como 20 years ago as a keeper. "You always made sure you had a good hold on the animal," he said.
Not scared? Not careful Farnsworth never planned on working with exotic animals.
But over his career he flew with a gorilla sedated on a stretcher in a small jet to Omaha, captured a moose loose on the grounds of the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth and bottle-fed baby lions in his home. He has shared his knowledge with numerous students.

A few things he has learned:
• Animals are resilient. Sometimes it's best to give nature a chance to be a healer.
• Given the choice, it's better to be on a plane with a gorilla than a horse. "A gorilla has a lot more sense than a horse."
• Sometimes more rewarding than just keeping animals healthy is knowing that people will be able to keep seeing the species.
• If it's not scary working in an animal's pen, then you're not being careful.
Farnsworth's favorite thing about the job has been the challenge of doing it.
Zoo medicine has changed tremendously since Farnsworth started. The level of care was based on how close a vet could get to an animal, he said.
In the old days, ropes were used. Then tranquilizers became safer and safer. Now, some animals respond to commands.

The animal he enjoys working with most is also the most difficult: the long-necked, long-legged giraffe. "They look graceful and nice, but they can kill you very easily," he said.
Farnsworth can be a character, Dee said, but he takes treating animals very seriously.
"If there was an expert around, he got the expert," Dee said. "He was never bashful about getting help so we got the best care for the animals."
Arlene Scheunemann, a zoo board member and longtime volunteer, first met Farnsworth 40 years ago. "He has been absolutely excellent," she said. "Doc was always around."
She fielded late-night calls from him to rush to the zoo to help with a sick animal and returned the favor when her family would take home baby orangutans, tigers and gorillas.
Taking baby animals home for a couple of months was common practice years ago because there wasn't enough room in the old, cramped facility.

No more milking Farnsworth grew up on a dairy farm near Toledo, Ohio, and had every intention of returning to it after college at Ohio State University. But he ended up in vet school and after graduating took a teaching job at the University of Minnesota. That was in 1962, and immediately he began helping out part time at Como.

In 1965, he became the zoo's primary veterinarian in addition to his U duties. "I ended up being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 45-plus years," he said.
Dr. Micky Trent, a U colleague who has been working with Farnsworth over the past several years, will take over as the zoo's primary vet.

Dee said Farnsworth remains on speed dial and will serve as a "special volunteer."
Farnsworth's feelings toward retirement are similar to those he felt when he watched the last cow get towed down the driveway of the family farm in Ohio. "It dawned on me -- now I don't have to milk tonight," he said. "That's kind of how I feel today."

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542

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