TAMPA – Busch Gardens is moving its animal hospital from off stage to center stage with up close views.
"We designed it so people feel like they are right in the operating room with us," said Mike Burton, a 15-year vet of the theme park who toured the few zoos that pioneered the idea before Busch forked out $5 million to build its own.
Most days visitors will see a parade of animals getting 30 to 60 minute physicals or preventive treatments like a sloth getting his innards checked by ultrasound, a hedgehog in for dental work or a flamingo whose chapped feet are treated with a cold laser. But you could also happen upon an animal undergoing surgery like the kangaroo that just had a lung operation.
"You just don't know what's going to happen," General Manager Jim Dean said Thursday as crews put the finishing touches on the Animal Care Facility that opens Jan. 23.
The size of a CVS drug store, the layout sports floor-to ceiling windows on treatment and surgery rooms. Plus close up cameras in the operating room lamps and ceilings take visitors right into the action on big screen TV. Park veterinarians can be miked for sound. There are also cameras built in to the X-ray room, lab microscopes and endoscopy probes that get into stomachs.
The surgery table can handle critters that weigh up to a ton.
Inspired by a similar glassed-in facility in a rural Australian animal park, the center quadruples the space where Busch vets treat and monitor the health of 2,000 animals across 300 species. Busch also borrowed ideas from smaller zoo hospitals with open viewing in Cleveland and St. Louis.
"We will alert the squeamish if there is going to be blood," said Peter Black, senior vet. "But it's going to be hard to get in if we are operating on a tiger (because of crowds). The surgery would take hours."
The facility also uses interactive exhibits as a learning tool. Free take-home cards explaining veterinary procedures come imprinted with QR codes that lead the curious to a webpage with more information on various animals.
There's also demonstrations of Busch animal meal preparation in a kitchen outfitted like a Food Network set. Tables are set up for visitors to help chop and dish up portions for about a fifth of the park's daily rations.
"This facility is the new state of the art," said Jack Hanna, a former Columbus Zoo director whose syndicated TV animal series is based at Busch Gardens. "In the next six months, hundreds of zoo vets will travel here to see it."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.