By Brian Yauger
Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! The Veterinary Expo was on Youngstown State University’s campus, and guest speaker Ric Berlinski has had experience with all three.
Berlinski is the senior staff veterinarian and big cat specialist with the Toledo Zoo. He is also a partner of Panthera. Panthera is a group described on its website as “devoted exclusively to the conservation of wild cats and their landscapes, which sustain people and biodiversity.”
Berlinski gave two separate hour-long lectures, one on his time at the Toledo Zoo, and the second on working with Panthera.
“We try to find different veterinarians to come speak, and try to get different interests and practices to come speak and give us a wide diversity,” Donald Crum, a pre-veterinary major and treasurer of the YSU Pre-Veterinary Society said. “This year we got Ric Berlinski who is a former zoo vet, and in the past we’ve gotten small animal and large animal vets, who have different interests as well.”
Berlinski spent three two-month periods at the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve in the Tien Shen Mountains in Southeastern Kyrgyzstan tracking the elusive snow leopards native to the region.
“In the three years Panthera and I have been in Kyrgyzstan, we have tracked the movements of eight different snow leopards,” Berlinski said. “That makes for the second highest total in the world.”
In addition to working with Panthera, Berlinski has been the senior staff vet at the Toledo Zoo since 2009, with a specialty in big cats. Berlinski previously worked with a private vet service before joining the Toledo Zoo. His reason for switching might not be what you would expect.
“Lion scars are just a lot cooler than if you were bit by a dachshund,” Berlinski said. “I have a few of those. My left shoulder has been entirely rebuilt after I was kicked by a rhino. It was my fault. I don’t blame her one bit. In this field, the one thing I tell everyone is ‘complacency kills’.”
The students who attended Berlinski’s speech were enamored with him.
“I thought Dr. Ric Berlinski’s speech was phenomenal, and even though he says he’s not a public speaker, he is a great speaker,” Crum said. He also really knows how to keep the attention of the audience and keeps things fun.”
Some students were given information to reflect on their career paths. Madison Ewing, a biology and pre-veterinary major, now has a new angle to look at when deciding her next steps going forward.
“I absolutely loved going to the Expo. I had been debating between becoming a zoo veterinarian or a small animal veterinarian and Berlinski really helped inform me about the life of a zoo vet,” Ewing said.
Berlinski’s second lecture featured a slideshow of breathtaking photographs from his trips to Kyrgyzstan with an anecdote to follow every picture, including stories of nearly losing a finger, nearly dying due to the cold after walking naked in waist deep water, and breaking down in tears after touching the first of the leopards he and his group had captured and tagged.
“I took from the presentation and his speech that it takes a special and crazy kind of person to be a zoo vet,” Crum said. “You are dealing with animals that can potentially kill you while trying to do medical treatment.”
Being a zoo vet can also mean being responsible for animals who wander onto the zoo property. During Berlinski’s speech, he recalled a time where he had to take care of animals that snuck into the zoo, including neutering a group of raccoons.
Attendees also learned that while the main part of a zoo vet’s job happens on-site, that doesn’t mean always being confined there.
“Being a zoo vet, you get to do all kinds of conservation work to ensure the survival of species within the zoo and out in the wild,” Crum said. “A zoo vet can also go out on expedition and do conservation field work.”