Through panoramic windows at her newly christened veterinary clinic, Jackie Gai watched elephants lumber across the lush, hilly terrain of this Calaveras County sanctuary, stirring up dirt, munching on branches, flapping their magnificent ears. Just outside the Pat Derby Animal Wellness Center, named for the late founder of the internationally renowned Performing Animal Welfare Society, Gai caught glimpses of a resident black leopard resting on a platform and tigers roaming the soft, green grass of their enclosure.
The elephants, Gai explained, suffer from arthritis and foot deformities from years of standing on concrete and other unforgiving surfaces in zoos and circuses. Some of the big cats, once chained in backyards or caged in roadside zoos, have crossed eyes and other health problems related to problematic breeding practices. A black bear is hobbled by the effects of buckshot embedded deep in his tissue.
Gai, the longtime veterinarian at PAWS, cares for all of them.
Until now, the assorted animal refugees housed at the sanctuary received their X-rays, surgical procedures and other treatment “in the field” at the compound, or 80 miles away at UC Davis. Now, with the opening of the $1 million veterinary center, funded largely by an anonymous donation, all but the most complicated procedures can be done in a sparkling new treatment room.
The clinic culminates a dream that began shortly after Derby and her partner, Ed Stewart, founded PAWS in 1984 and opened a small sanctuary in Galt for abused and retired performing animals. Sixteen years later, they opened ARK 2000, a much larger refuge that spans 2,300 acres in Calaveras County and houses dozens of wild animals. Derby died in 2013, just as plans for the wellness clinic were taking shape.
Gai said she designed the clinic with her mentor in mind. “I channeled Pat,” she said. “Her heart, soul and spirit are here.”
The building’s large windows overlook the expansive compound, and its rooms are painted in natural hues of green, blue and brown. A large table in the conference room is made from reclaimed wood. Built-in shelves are filled with books both scientific and whimsical, with titles ranging from “Small Animal Surgery” to “Elephants Are Awesome!” Pieces from Derby’s collection of wild animal artwork decorate the walls.
“Pat was not one to sit in an office under fluorescent lights all day,” said Gai, 55, who joined PAWS shortly after graduating from UC Davis veterinary school in 2001. “We wanted to bring nature indoors.”
“Look,” Gai said, catching sight of elephants meandering in the distance. “There’s Gypsy, walking out by the lake. There’s Prince. From here, I can see our entire sanctuary.”
The veterinary tools at Gai’s disposal are impressive. A pharmacy is stocked with medicines and supplements for treating orthopedic and dental ailments common among wild animals held captive. The surgical suite features a padded, hydraulically operated table capable of accommodating the largest of the sanctuary’s bears and exotic cats. Soon, it will be used to perform spay and neuter surgeries on eight tigers recently rescued from a defunct roadside zoo in Colorado.
The clinic’s anesthesia machines, ultrasound and X-ray equipment, and dental tools are state of the art, Gai said. “Every piece of equipment has been selected specifically for the types of animals that we have here.” The clinic, she added, may be the most sophisticated of its kind in the nation.
Until now, Gai and her veterinary team would perform minor surgeries in the field. If an animal needed a tooth extraction or a toe operation, the team would administer anesthesia with a dart gun, and use portable X-ray machines and monitoring equipment to complete the procedures outdoors. “It was still high-quality medicine,” Gai said. “But it’s not easy to do things like really intense dental procedures, with drills and polishers, in the field.”
Now, fewer animals will have to be driven to UC Davis for surgery, a major undertaking that “can be very, very frightening” for the creatures, Gai said.
A tiger in need of eye surgery, for example, will be lured into a cage and delivered by truck to the garage-like door that opens into the clinic’s treatment room. There, the cat will be anesthetized, undergo the operation and, if necessary, remain in the hospital overnight.
The most complex operations will continue to be performed at the veterinary hospital at UC Davis, along with procedures such as CT and MRI scans.
PAWS will use the new clinic to help train future generations of veterinary students, another goal of Derby’s. “These animals are very different from the ones in zoos. They’re different from pets,” said Gai. “Caring for animals in a sanctuary is a very unique experience.”
Gai is grateful to be part of it. Born and raised in Hawaii, she has been “obsessed with wild animals for as long as I can remember,” she said. In addition to her duties at ARK 2000, Gai provides veterinary care to sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation areas across Northern California.
When Derby offered her the PAWS job, Gai said, “I knew right away that I belonged, and being here never gets old for me.
“For me, it’s an honor to take care of these incredible animals who have been through so much. It’s quite something to be part of their healing process. It just feels so right.”