A walk on the wild side

B Y - S C O T T - C O N R O E
P H O T O S - C O U R T E S Y - O F - B I L L Y - K A R E S H

To save the lives of exotic and endangered animals, Bronx Zoo veterinarian Billy Karesh (DVM '82) makes house calls in some of the remotest areas of the globe

To Billy Karesh, the remoteness of his surroundings, and the sensual feast therein, are a constant reminder of why he is who he is. It could be the sweetly damp fragrance of a South American rain forest where he's trying to trap wild pigs. Or the white-hot glare of the sun on a Peruvian beach where he's approaching a wary seal. Or a searing wind off an African veldt where he's trying to guess a white rhino's weight so he can choose the correct tranquilizer dosage. At times like these, Karesh—who saves wild animals for a living—is so far removed from the world of gridlock and power lunches that he imagines himself to be the last man on earth. And he is reminded, once again, that all of humankind, even those who would never suspect it, are responsible for preserving the earth and the creatures who call it home.

This is how Karesh (DVM '82) has felt since he was a boy, caring for injured animals in Charleston, S.C. The feeling has guided and shaped his whole life, causing him to desert the business career projected for him and chase a dream. It's a feeling he would like to share with as many people as he can.

Karesh is based at the Bronx Zoo. His office is five minutes from Yankee Stadium, but he's never there. He heads the International Field Veterinary Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns and operates not just the Bronx Zoo but several others. The WCS also sponsors some 300 conservation projects around the world.

Home is a middle-class Bronx neighborhood overlooking Long Island Sound, but it's a view Karesh seldom sees. He spends most of his time tracking, studying, and healing wild animals—most of them rare and endangered. The world's remotest terrains are his offices and operating rooms, filled with physical and political dangers.

Last year, to further his mission and chronicle his adventurous life, he wrote Appointment at the Ends of the World, a memoir published by Warner Books (see excerpt below).

Appointment is a window into Karesh's life. In Zaire, he bribes and cajoles his way through the customs desk at a tiny airport so he can minister to an injured okapi, a giraffe-like creature that stands seven feet tall. In Cameroon, he places a radio collar on a bull elephant. In Borneo, he takes DNA samples from an orangutan. In Bolivia, he captures a caiman, a mini-crocodilian with teeth that could slice Karesh's flesh as the creature squirms to free himself.

Judging from the projects listed on his office wall—18 nations to visit and more than 30 species to doctor—a second book should be in the offing. On the opposite wall hangs a map titled, "The World/Political," as if to stress the boundaries drawn by humans.

"I was just working with seals in Argentina," Karesh says while escorting a visitor through the Bronx Zoo's new five-acre Congo exhibit (see alumni profile on Larry Shepps). In January, I'll go to Mali to work with elephants."

At times, Karesh is so far removed from the world of gridlock and power lunches, that he imagines himself to be the last man on earth.

From the albino penquin chicks he's holding at top of page to the pulse oximeter reading he's taking from a seal's tongue (left), Karesh ministers to a diverse worldwide clientele.

Right: In Zaire, where Karesh covers a sedated rhino's eyes to calm him, a 1998 political takeover temporarily closed down conservation efforts. Rebels ransacked homes, but fortunately took no interest in naturalists' field research journals. Though some poaching occurred during the uprising, says Karesh, white rhino, hippo, elephant, and buffalo populations seem to be thriving.

Billy Karesh is 5'9" with a gray-flecked brown beard, muscular arms, and intense dark eyes set in a tanned, weathered face. Today, he is demonstrating ways in which the Bronx Zoo teaches people to appreciate wildlife. The zoo has been a leader in reforming the way animals are exhibited, replacing cramped cages and pens with enclosures that mimic natural habitats. It's controversial—because the animals may not choose to show themselves to paying customers—but also popular with the majority of the public because it mimics nature. Artificial trees and rubber vines blend with Mid-Atlantic native trees that resemble tropical ones. There's even a fake elephant rubbing tree, with tusk marks and missing bark. "It's another world," says Karesh. "You forget where you are." Trees hide the skyscrapers. A broadcast system conceals city sounds with bird and monkey calls, though it can't hide the roar of airplanes overhead.

At the sprawling gorilla enclosure, 12 of the inhabitants are basking in the sun. Suddenly, a graying female stands up to stare over the tourists—at Karesh. She knows his face.

"I must have worked on her, maybe 10 years ago," says Karesh, who rarely cares for animals at the zoo itself. "I don't recognize her. They know me more than I know them."

He seems embarrassed that he doesn't remember her. Walking on, he says hello to a pair of juvenile gorillas.

The map above highlights trips Karesh made to the Congo-Zaire, Bolivia, Cameroon, Peru, and Borneo—which are the basis for his book, Appointment at the Ends of the World (Warner Books, 1999).

Growing up between a lake and a salt marsh of the Ashley River in Charleston, Karesh fell in love with animals. "Wild Kingdom" mesmerized him, and his family put up with sharing their home with injured or homeless animals he found nearby: snakes, raccoons, blue jays, and possums.

"His passion was serious, but amusing," says his sister, Barbara Stender. "Our mother helped him put animals in laundry baskets lined with newspaper. It was fun to have baby raccoons running around—and Billy let the animals go when they were ready."

Karesh's father owned two men's clothing stores and put Billy to work in them, hoping he would take over the family business some day. Karesh's parents appreciated his passion for animals, but they steered him toward a more traditional career. How could he make a living with wild animals?


Something was definitely nearby, but I doubted it was a tapir. For a while I'd had the uncomfortable sensation of being watched. When I turned on my headlamp, two huge shining eyes stared back at me from no more than fifteen or twenty feet away. As I shifted the light, I saw that the eyes belonged to a crouching jaguar.

A jaguar that was stalking me. He was a beautiful animal—big wide head, golden yellow coat with sharp black-spotted markings. I thought it was a male because his head was huge, larger than a female's. I was awestruck, but only briefly.

Since the [tranquilizer] dart I'd prepared for a tapir contained enough drug to kill a jaguar (or a human), I couldn't dart him . . . If he wished, the jaguar could get me within two or three seconds. His powerful jaws could snap my neck as if I were a gingerbread man. . . .

I needed to be calm, or at least act calm. Both the jaguar and I were watching my behavior. Nonchalant seemed as good an approach as any. My next strategy was to get my Streamlight out of my backpack and turn it on. I thought the intensely bright light (15,000 candlepower) might annoy the jaguar enough to make him retreat; or if he attacked, at least I could wedge it in his mouth. . . .

If I had smelled like a human, which I should have, the cat should have gone away. When darting elephants in Africa, the guys rub fresh elephant dung on my clothes and under my armpits to mask my human scent. . . .

Meanwhile, the jaguar was still crouched down. He yawned, showing his huge curved canine teeth. I realized that the Streamlight was . . . too long to fit in his mouth lengthwise, and the diameter was far too small to hold his mouth significantly open. Damn. A few more minutes passed. I thought how nice a cigarette would be at the moment. . . .

The jaguar yawned again. He had nice teeth, none broken. As a vet, I'm supposed to notice. . . .The yawn was not a reflection of boredom—animals frequently yawn in a threatening situation. It's a casual display of their weapons. Finally, to my immense relief, he stood up, turned away, and slunk off into the bushes.

Karesh dutifully majored in business, then switched to architecture at the University of South Carolina, until a friend's mother suggested he follow his heart. He transferred to Clemson to study zoology, graduating in 1977, then worked as a zookeeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., for a year before enrolling at UGA's School of Veterinary Medicine.

"UGA's vet school is one of the best in the country," says Karesh, "and what impressed me most was the faculty's commitment to teaching—they wanted us to be ready to practice medicine the day we graduated. Keith Prasse stood out as a role model. A scientist and doctor with a brain like an encyclopedia, he made sure we learned a ridiculously large volume of information in one trimester. He and his co-teacher, Robert Duncan, wrote the textbook that all the other vet schools in the U.S. used. They took us through that book, making sure we learned every aspect of it."

Judging from the list of projects on Karesh's office wall—18 nations to visit and nearly 30 species to doctor—a second book should be in the offing.

In Bolivia, Karesh weighs a young caiman, which is equipped with razor-sharp teeth that still protrude enough to cut you even when its mouth is taped shut.

Karesh got valuable exotic animal experience while a student at UGA.

"There was a clinician who handled wild birds and exotic pets, and he welcomed us to participate in those cases," says Karesh, who also appreciated the fact that UGA allows students to gain additional training outside the University during their senior year. "I spent a month at the San Diego Zoo and a month at UC-Davis, where they have an exotic animal clinical program."

New York City might seem like an odd place to find a confirmed animal lover and outdoorsman like Karesh, but he only has to deal with New York for a few months of the year. He likes opera and art. He knows New York politics. He hobnobs with WCS donors. But at parties, he's silent when talk shifts to new TV shows. And mention of last fall's football game between Georgia and Georgia Tech draws a shrug. He is home too seldom to connect fully with normal American life.

"I don't feel like I'm missing anything," he says of his unusual career path. "I have a really full life."

Other people are immersed in Karesh's cause, such as the Swiss couple who quit their jobs and moved to Zaire to manage an okapi research center in the jungle. His measure of success is how many inroads he and the WCS have made into establishing new wildlife preserves or teaching another nation's people to value their resources.

He is optimistic that people are learning this lesson and that much of the wild environment can be saved, though the solution will probably be more parks and managed areas.

"The key is to get more people concerned," he says. "The level of interest in the public has grown. If we can build on that, we can make a difference. I have to be optimistic."

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