Croc doc loves working on wild side

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 July, 2004, 12:00am

Ask most doctors, and they will probably have a tale to tell about difficult patients. But few practitioners regularly deal with patients who are liable to bite their hand off or are unwilling to enter a clinic.

It was such challenges that attracted Nimal Fernando to not only become a veterinarian but to specialise in exotic wildlife.

As senior vet at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, Dr Fernando is perhaps best known as the doctor in charge of the Yuen Long crocodile, which captured the public's imagination by evading experts from Australia, the mainland and Hong Kong for seven months before being caught.

Dr Fernando also personally handles every wildlife rescue case brought to the farm. Most cases involve reptiles and birds, and he says that one of the difficulties 'is the breadth of information that you have to try and cover'.

'Obviously, there is a difference between treating a bird and a reptile, for example, but there are generally enough similarities that you can learn the differences and have a point of reference.'

Dr Fernando handles about 400 cases a year, but the trade in live-animal smuggling often means extra work. He can recall a record seizure of 9,000 terrapins bound for mainland food markets in 2002.

'It took 20 people two days just to unpack them from the crates,' he says. 'It was sad and frustrating. They had been kept in captivity for an extended period of time. When they were brought here they were dehydrated, emaciated and diseased.

'In the end, we were only able to save less than half of them. Many of them had to be put to sleep. You know they came from the wild, they were just going to be eaten, and now the only fate for them was to be euthanised. It gets to you.'

One harrowing experience occurred when he was a final-year student on 'bird rotation' at a clinic in Australia.

'I was taking a sick bird out of its cage and putting it on a scale to weigh it ... and the bird was dead. Bang. We had a very distraught owner and we had to try to explain the situation to him.

'Sometimes you have to make this judgment, whether to even pick up a bird. Birds can be very fragile.'

Dr Fernando was born in Germany, grew up in London and went to university in Australia.

'I didn't grow up on a farm or anything, but I guess I was very impressionable,' he says. When I was 13, I read the whole series of James Herriot books. They had a big impact on me.

'James Herriot is a British vet who sort of popularised the profession. He wrote about his experiences working in a practice in the Yorkshire dales.

'I wanted to be a vet because I wanted to work with animals in the capacity of treating them and helping them.

'My father supported me and thought it was great that I became a vet because he had wanted to be one when he was young. In the end he became an engineer.'

But despite believing that every job has its life span, Dr Fernando says he is unlikely to become an engineer any time soon.