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In the Company of Animals


The doctor is on his way, but his patients appear not to notice. They are too busy grunting, clucking, slithering, lolling on their sides, hopping from perch to perch, or stamping their huge feet. Some are quite sick; others are recovering nicely from injury or illness. Some are in a nasty mood. Others raise their heads as the man in khakis, a stethoscope dangling from his neck, draws near. He treats them all the same, with a deft, compassionate touch punctuated by a medley of soft, soothing sounds.

As he makes his rounds at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Jim Grillo, V05, is a man in his element. The zoo, which has about fifteen hundred animals living on fifty-eight acres, is known for its tropical species, naturally suited to the zoo’s parklike terrain, with its stands of live oak and dangling Spanish moss. The sixty-four-year-old Grillo is one of three full-time vets working here.

He radiates an easy, unassuming manner that must have served him well during the twenty-five years when his patients were human and he was a head and neck surgeon in New York City—before he made his dramatic midlife shift into veterinary medicine. He’s not the typical big-city surgeon who powers his way forward by sheer force of personality. Rather, this doctor steals up on you without fanfare. “Uh, hello,” he says quietly, glancing down. Grillo is of medium height. He has gentle brown eyes. Like sunlight and water, he is suited to this animal kingdom.

Two powerfully coiled Bengal tigers await us at the first stop on his rounds. Grillo clucks to them through the bars. “Who’s my boy? Who’s my big boy?” he says to the nearest cat. The tiger responds with a low, throaty exhalation known as chuffing, indicating contentment, Grillo says. Neither tiger needs medical attention today.

Next door, an Indonesian pig called a babirusa, with small, tightly curved tusks on either side of the snout, instinctively flops down to have her back stroked as Grillo approaches. “She’s kind of shy,” he notes as he caresses the pig through the bars while murmuring, again and again, “Who’s my girl, who’s my girl, who’s my good girl?”

Droppings the size of grapefruit dot the floor of the giant shed leading to the next consultation. Two elephants stand side by side in the open air, tended by a young woman. One is forty-eight years old, the other thirty-nine. They have been together for more than three decades. Grillo leans on the enclosure fence, beaming at the pair before entering to examine them.

As one elephant lifts a giant foot for inspection, it occurs to me—strangely, but also obviously—that these patients can’t talk. If they have been hurt, they can’t say how. If they feel pain, they can’t say where. This makes treatment something of a guessing game, but there’s also a positive side to the animals’ muteness. “They can’t lie to you,” says the doctor archly. The animals have to be observed closely for changes in behavior—a slackening of appetite, a hitch in the stride. “That’s why I like to be out with the animals as much as I can,” Grillo says.

Some animals give up their medical history more easily than others. A male rhinoceros, for example, is unfazed by the concerted clapping and calling of Grillo and a staffer, who are determined to get the huge, armor-clad animal to swing toward them for a quick examination. Eventually, the beast gazes at them, or somewhat toward them. This rhino appears to be doing fine. A second rhino, a female, recently had one of her two horns knocked off—no one knows how—and Grillo has treated the site of the injury. “She’s recovering nicely,” he says, after examining the spot and patting her lightly on the head.

Minutes later, we visit Daphne, a tapir that Grillo characterizes, only partly tongue-in-cheek, as “one of my long-term relationships.” Daphne, a large piglike creature with a stubby snout, is lying on her side in a grassy pen. She is twenty-five years old, somewhat arthritic in her late middle age, and recovering from a toe infection that required daily treatment for about a year. Grillo approaches her with a wide grin. “Been awhile, Daphne, been awhile,” he murmurs before dropping to his knees beside her and hugging her around the neck. “Hey, my sweetie,” he says.

Daphne’s eyes get squinty and her head rears back as he strokes her belly—signs of tapir bliss, according to a young staffer standing nearby. Animals with chronic conditions are the ones Grillo forms the strongest attachments to. “You get to love them,” the doc explains. “Daphne had us all worried for a while.”

Grillo has enjoyed being near animals throughout his life. They embody for him a quality he describes as “mystical.” It was entirely in keeping with his character that on his first day in New York City—after completing medical school at Dartmouth and entering surgical residency at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan—he should venture over to the Bronx Zoo. He thought he might offer his services, both as a physician to the staff and as a consultant on surgical procedures.

There he met Emil Dolensek, the zoo’s legendary chief veterinarian. “He was the best person I ever knew, and the most profound influence in my life,” Grillo says. During his residency, the young surgeon spent two days a week at the zoo, and remained in touch with Dolensek after launching his surgical practice, right up until his mentor’s death in 1990.

Then, in 1999, Grillo hit one of those turning points in life, after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Long days spent lying in the hospital and, later, rounds of chemotherapy gave him ample time to think about his path, and in particular the road not traveled, the road lined with animals, which he still had time left to explore. In 2001 Grillo shut down his practice and entered veterinary school at Tufts. He was fifty-three, older by far than any other student.

The transition had its challenges. Grillo worried he had forgotten much of the science he once knew cold. The approach of his first chemistry quiz filled him with dread. He was too modest to tell his colleagues about his career as a surgeon. And yet, one of his professors, Larry Engelking, recalls, “he proceeded to jump right up to the top of the class.” Determined to work at a zoo when he graduated, he applied for jobs around the country and was hired at Audubon in the fall of 2006.

Out among the animals, the applause is slight. One of Grillo’s favorite patients—though he’s reluctant to say “favorite” aloud for fear of offending others in his care—is a ruffed lemur named Stella, age twenty-nine, whose problems include a cardiac murmur and a chronic infection in one foot. Grillo has already performed several surgeries on her. “Once they’re in their late twenties, sometimes there may not be much you can do,” he says, and you can hear the comforting tone that he must have employed with patients and their families during his surgical days back in Manhattan. A lemur is a monkey-like creature, but the kindness translates well.

Alone, Grillo enters an area that contains a moat and some small trees and a rounded hut, like something out of The Flintstones. There he drops down on one knee to examine Stella. First, he strokes her tenderly to calm her. Then he says, “Let’s listen,” applying his stethoscope to her skinny chest. He continues talking quietly to her for a while, unobserved except by a photographer and me. We are twenty yards distant, standing on an arched bridge over a culvert, unable to hear most of what he’s saying. It’s a cloudy Monday morning in New Orleans. There’s a rush from a waterfall behind us and the sound of tropical birds squawking and pealing high in the wind.

Jim Grillo is hard at work, erasing the last imaginary lines between the animal kingdom and ours.

Bruce Morgan is the editor of Tufts Medicine magazine. A version of this article appeared in Tufts Veterinary Medicine.

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