He was poolside to welcome belugas Bella and Miki into the world. He was the admitting doctor for a sea lion pup blinded by gunshot. And one of his best memories is of successfully removing a life-threatening tumor from a sea otter.
Meet Dr. Bill Van Bonn, Shedd’s vice president for animal health. “My team’s patients are the aquarium’s 32,000 animals and our clients are the aquarists and trainers,” he says. “I have to ensure that the practice runs smoothly, which means oversight of schedules, budgets, space use and resource management. Less of my time these days is hands-on with the animals, but I still build that into my schedule because, above all else, I’m a clinical veterinarian.”
Like many people, as a kid he aspired to being an animal doctor. During college, to get a real feel for the work, he volunteered at the local practice in his rural Michigan hometown. “I was hooked,” he says. He was inspired by the veterinarian, who could quickly diagnose the situation, from a barn kitten suffering from a parasite to a dog with twisted intestines, and pull the patient through.
“Whatever the problem, he knew exactly what it was or how to figure it out. That was the kind of knowledge that I wanted to have.”
Today, with more than 25 years of veterinary experience, Dr. Bill’s favorite part of his job is “making a big difference for the animals because of the knowledge and skills that we bring to each case.” A standout case was removing an abdominal mass from Shedd’s eldest sea otter.
“Sea otters have physiological adaptations that make anesthesia and surgery a real challenge,” he explains. “Because they’ll go into hypothermia if we clip their fur and scrub them to make the site sterile, we had to improvise. We parted her fur with combs after applying antiseptic gel to the area.” The tumor was benign, but large and attached to an organ. “She would have been in real distress if it had not been removed,” he says, adding that such tumors can be fatal. “We addressed the technical issues and the concerns over the risks, and by doing the surgery we extended her life by many years.”
Dr. Bill’s first passion was equine medicine, but after several years of doctoring to horses, he looked for something in which he could combine his degree with his lifelong love of streams and ponds. “That meant working with aquatic animals,” he says, “and in those days, there were very few opportunities.”
One arose through the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps where, as a newly minted army officer, Dr. Bill was sent to San Diego to work with the navy’s marine mammal program. “I had never seen a dolphin, let alone worked on one, but I realized it was an incredible opportunity.” Once again he was hooked.
“It was an incredible experience,” working with beluga whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, and he stayed with the program, in a military and later civilian capacity, for 15 years. “I probably could have retired from there, but my heart was in the Great Lakes.”
His path back came with a phone call in 2005 from Shedd’s then-head veterinarian, Dr. Jeff Boehm, who called to discuss a case, then mentioned an opening for the position of director of animal care. “And that’s what landed me at Shedd. I thought, how cool, I can work with marine mammals and be back home on the lakes where I grew up!”
At Shedd, he set to work with the animal health team to incorporate cutting-edge techniques and state-of-the-art equipment into the preventive medicine program. And he loved working with belugas again. But after four years, his career path changed again. Boehm, now head of The Marine Mammal Center, a rescue and rehabilitation facility in California, offered Dr. Bill the chance to work with pinnipeds.
Dr. Bill relished his experience there as director of veterinary services. “Each year, we admitted more than 1,000 sea lions, seals and sea otters, all with major medical problems to solve.” One of the animals he admitted was a young sea lion with gunshot wounds in his face. Dr. Bill had a chance to work with Shedd once again as our trainers spent time at the center with the pup in preparation for giving him a permanent home at the aquarium. Little Cruz arrived at Shedd in December 2012, and a month later Dr. Bill returned to lead Shedd’s animal health division.
“It’s been an incredible homecoming,” he says.
Next week, read Dr. Bill’s blog about his work with belugas whales.
And in July, join Dr. Bill when he leads a Shedd Adventures group to Churchill, Manitoba, to experience belugas and the arctic summer. Reserve your space today to learn more about belugas from someone who has cared for them in aquariums and in the wild!
—Karen Furnweger, web editor