Few people can say they have been kicked by an elephant and lived to tell the tale. But retired veterinarian Dr. Mark Goldstein, a former Los Angeles and Boston zoo director and animal welfare advocate now living in San Diego, survived to share that story and many more in his new book, “Lions and Tigers and Hamsters: What Animals Large and Small Taught Me About Life, Love, and Humanity.”
As a young second-year undergrad at Cornell University, Goldstein got the internship of a lifetime for a veterinarian-in-training at a safari park in Florida. In the haste of youth, Goldstein approached Donia, the matriarch of Elephant Island, and did not follow protocol by letting her smell his feet and then letting her lead. She paid him back for his rude manners by flinging him 30 feet in the air and proceeded to take the common elephant path of killing a predator by holding him on the ground with her head and lifting her hind legs to squash the intruder.
Goldstein was able to roll into a nearby canal populated by alligators before the final crush could happen, and he was rescued by park officials. What followed were days in the hospital with two broken bones, an injured neck, a bruised kidney and a footprint from Donia on his back.
“Donia taught me two lessons: Never take an animal for granted, and following the rules can have tremendous value,” Goldstein said.
That lesson served him well in his 40-year career working in small-animal and wildlife medicine and then as zoo director for the Los Angeles and Boston zoos. He also served as president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.
In his book, Goldstein shares up-close and personal experiences of taking the rectal temperature of a 6,000-pound unrestrained and unanesthetized rhinoceros; teaching veterinarians how to spay and neuter dogs on a kitchen table during a war drill in the Hula Valley of Israel; and removing a tumor from a beloved goldfish that brought the owner, a child with autism, the calming comfort he needed. He recounts saving the canine mascot of a local order of Catholic nuns, almost coming face-to-face with a Siberian tiger, being responsible for the delivery of a baby lowland gorilla, and wrangling an escaped chimpanzee set loose by an animal rights group.
“It was experiences like these that taught me that I was part of a sacred profession that had the ability to have a positive, meaningful impact on both animals and people,” said Goldstein. “I found that people who value and love animals also hold a mutual respect for each other that transcends language barriers, cultural differences, religious beliefs and conflicting political opinions.”
Goldstein passionately believes that understanding and protecting the human-animal bond and the responsibilities that come with that is a critical thread in creating the fabric of a healthy society.
What follows is an interview with the author:
Q: What is your favorite experience retold in the book that summarizes the essence of the human-animal bond?
A: Every story in the book speaks to some aspect of the human-animal bond. My two favorites are Harold the hamster and Frank the fish. In the case of Harold, his owner was a 12-year-old boy who was willing to spend the money he saved for two years to buy a new bike to save his hamster instead. Frank was a fancy goldfish with a tumor on its gills who was the best friend of an autistic child. According to his mother, the young man learned how to count watching the goldfish go around the tank, he learned to feed himself by feeding Frank, and he learned the value of keeping himself clean by helping to clean Frank’s tank. In both cases, we successfully made a positive difference in both animals and for their respective families.
Q: You have been involved in animal care and welfare for 40 years. What do you think is the most significant change?
A: I have not only had the privilege of being a veterinarian but fortunate to have responsibilities as a clinician, zoo director, president of a progressive humane society and now an author in the course of my career. I have seen momentous strides made in all three areas. One example is veterinary medicine has advanced so that our companion animals are living to become senior citizens. Vet med has embraced technology so that diagnosing and treating problems previously missed or that were untreatable are now curable. Recently, Fear Free methods are reducing fear, anxiety and stress, and assuring appropriate pain management for our pets.
A: Advising pet owners when it’s time to let go. Making a decision to end an animal’s life because they are so infirmed that their quality of life has deteriorated past what is humane is the most difficult but selfless, loving decision one can make for a lifelong pet who may have provided years of unconditional love.
Q: What are some of the funniest things that you have experienced as a veterinarian?
A: I have had many. When you work with animals and people, there are many wonderful, joyous and happy moments. One day a man brought in his dog and handed me a tinfoil package that was supposed to be a fecal sample. I went in the back room and carefully opened the tinfoil (not the most desirable way to contain a fecal sample) and to my surprise, it was a chicken wing. I went back in the room and showed the owner while at the same time saying, “I hope nobody packed somebody’s lunch.” His response was one of shock with an outburst of “OH NO, YES!” He had sent his son to school with a fecal sample!
Feature image photo by Janie DeCellas