For three months, BOS Foundation’s Samboja Lestari Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in East Kalimantan was visited by Joost Philippa, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACCM, a wildlife veterinarian from the Netherlands with extensive expertise in the care and treatment of orangutans and bears that he developed over his more than 13 years working in the field at projects across Africa and Asia. During his short stay, Dr. Joost, as the team would warmly call him, volunteered to train our veterinary and sun bear care teams in protocols to increase animal welfare and new surgical techniques that could be applied to both species. This is the personal testimony of one of our vets, Dr. Made, who participated in the training which included dental procedures, ophthalmic surgeries, suturing techniques, medical imaging, anaesthesia protocols, laboratory result interpretation, critical care monitoring, necropsy, and veterinary exchanges.
These past three months training with Dr. Joost have been incredibly enriching for the vet team. At the start, when we looked at our ambitious plan, full of dentistry and eye surgeries, we all felt overwhelmed with enthusiasm and delight. This training was to include numerous new techniques and topics, and we could not wait to start learning. Our eagerness was not restricted to only the dentistry and eye surgeries, but we were going to be free to ask questions and discuss all sorts of topics related to veterinary practices in wildlife.
Before we started the surgeries, we called upon our existing knowledge and discussed together anaesthesia, suturing, and basic dentistry. Following these lessons in theory, we were able to apply them in practice with our patients. At first, Dr. Joost showed us how to do the teeth extractions step-by-step. After observing several example surgeries, he gave us the chance to try by ourselves while under his guidance and supervision. We took this opportunity to enhance our skills, particularly in dental procedures and anaesthesia monitoring, because there is no better way to learn than by doing it with your own two hands!
Throughout the process, we learned so much more than just background knowledge and applied skills. We went beyond simple memorisation and sharpened our critical and systematic thinking, so that even when in unfamiliar circumstances, we would not be left without a way to tackle the new challenge in front of us. He challenged our thinking by questioning how we interpreted laboratory results, made diagnoses, and planned treatments. We were always encouraged to ask about how and why something was happening. Dr. Joost ensured that we understood the rationale and theory behind what we are doing, not just the steps. This helped us to grow more comfortable as well as feed our hunger to learn more and more. As vets, it is important to have a sound understanding about why symptoms are presenting as they are and how we use that knowledge to diagnose and design the best possible treatment for each individual patient.
Despite all of our carefully laid plans, we faced many unforeseen challenges, and sometimes we had to change our plans at the last minute. For instance, while we were in the middle of preparing for a dental procedure, we received the tragic news that a sun bear had suddenly died while in her enclosure. We made the decision to immediately cancel the planned surgery and instead carry out the necropsy, which revealed that the sun bear had passed away due to an underlying, deadly, and untreatable neurological condition. While we wish there were no need for a necropsy, the sorrowful event still served as a valuable learning experience, especially for the newer vets on the team who had never done a necropsy on a sun bear. Not everything went according to plan either and mistakes were made. A technical malfunction with a heating pad combined with wet weather conditions, left one orangutan patient with an electrical burn. As veterinarians whose calling is to help heal animals, we felt shocked, upset, and, disappointed in ourselves. We never want to learn lessons at the expense of others, but we took responsibility for the injury, did our best to manage it, learn from it, and use the awful experience to do better in the future.
Of all the important veterinary lessons we learned, what was undoubtably just as critical, was that we were also taught to believe in ourselves, to always keep trying, and not to give up without exploring every possible option. We also learned to trust in ourselves because there is almost nothing more important than to go into a procedure with calm and confidence. When we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, we will be successful. It did take time to grow our confidence, but it did happen slowly with every talk and procedure. We found that for topics that we previously did not understand, we were able to apply what we had learned, understand it fully, and then be able to do it by ourselves. As we improved individually, our teamwork was also strengthened because we were able to fully believe in each other throughout the procedures. It is also important to be conscious of one’s own capacity as a vet and as a person. Just because we must work to improve, that does not necessarily mean that we have to push ourselves all the time. It is just as important to know when we must take a proper break in order to perform better next time. Taking good care of ourselves, not just orangutans, is the most important thing to prevent burnout – which is sadly all too common in the world of veterinarians.
For me, personally, there is no denying that the tight procedure schedule and limited personnel availability was incredibly demanding and difficult. I felt myself truly being pushed in new ways, but in spite of this, I am still grateful for the experience as I learned so much from it and in ways I never expected. Every bit of energy and time we invested in the project paid off in the end. We, as individuals and as a unified team of veterinarians, benefitted from the project, and we are confident that all of our work will benefit the health and welfare of the orangutans and sun bears under our care. Even though this project has come to an end, our work is just beginning!
We would also like to extend our sincerest gratitude to the funding institutions who made this project possible, Orangutan Veterinary Aid (OVAID) and BOS Switzerland. We thank them for their assistance as well as the other BOS Partners (BOS Germany, BOS UK, BOS Australia, and Save the Orangutan) who financially and logistically support the daily work of our Samboja Lestari Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. And last, but certainly not least, thank you Dr. Joost for providing us with your time and expertise! We see the improvement of animal welfare as a constantly evolving process and this project as been an important step in our journey, but we look forward to continuing to support our teams in developing their skills and increasing the quality of our care for every animal in our centres and release sites!