Vet learns techniques to treat pandas

Romain Pizzi has been shadowing a top pancreatic surgeon. Picture: contributed
Romain Pizzi has been shadowing a top pancreatic surgeon. Picture: contributed
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THE Edinburgh Zoo surgeon who performs keyhole surgery on porky penguins has been observing operations on humans with pancreatic disease – so he can adapt the techniques for use on giant pandas.

Veterinary surgeon Romain Pizzi, who has presented nature shows on the BBC, Channel 4, Five, and Animal Planet, recently shadowed Professor Rowan Parks from Edinburgh University, one of the UK’s top pancreatic surgeons, in the hopes of learning skills which will aid in panda conservation.

While relatively rare in humans, pancreatic disease caused the death of one in seven wild pandas recorded between 1938 and 1992.

Mr Pizzi, 38, who lives in Penicuik, said: “I regularly observe operations on humans to see what we can apply to veterinary surgery.

“Obviously there are anatomical similarities and differences between humans and animals, so while techniques cannot generally be directly applied, we can try to adapt them to fit our many patients. This particular operation, at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, was on an elderly patient who had to have part of his pancreas removed.

“I try to see procedures carried out on a diverse range of patients, for example, people who are older, or people who are overweight, to correspond to the different sizes and weights of animals at different stages of life that we may need to treat. I also observe procedures at the Sick Kids hospital to get better ideas for younger or smaller animals.”

The good news is that it is unlikely Mr Pizzi will have to try out any of his new techniques on Edinburgh Zoo’s giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang.

“The pancreatic problems are caused by a gut worm which only affects pandas in the wild – there have been no cases of a captive panda dying from pancreatic disorders. However, the Zoological Society is extremely dedicated to improving panda care, and our commitment to panda conservation and the work we do with our Chinese colleagues means it is important that we learn how to better treat these problems – a sick wild panda could be brought to one of the Chinese sanctuaries for emergency treatment. Pandas suffering from pancreatic disease usually die, so it would be very rewarding to be able to help them.”

Mr Pizzi is best known for his pioneering laparoscopic techniques in animals and was featured in the Evening News last year when some of the more unusual objects he had removed from inquisitive penguin’s stomachs were revealed. And over the past eight years he has observed countless operations on the human body.

“I’ve watched people having liver tumours removed, gall bladder operations, stomach surgeries, hernia repairs, gynaecological procedures, corrections of birth defects, heart, lung and brain operations . . . We want to learn as much as we can from human surgeries so we can provide the best possible care to our animal patients.”

SURPRISES FROM PENGUINS’ TUMS

MR Pizzi revealed last year that he had removed objects such as batteries, gloves, children’s socks, lollypop sticks, a broken broom handle and coins from the stomachs of some of the 70 penguins living at Edinburgh Zoo. He said: “They do have a habit of eating things they shouldn’t, which is why we stress to our visitors to not throw foreign objects into the penguin enclosure.”

Last year, he also headed up a team in Laos which performed the first ever bear brain surgery. The procedure was carried out on a three-year old Asiatic black bear called Champa, who was suffering from hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain”.