Meet a Member: Ben Okimoto, DVM

Dr. Ben Okimoto served as the Honolulu Zoo Veterinarian for over 30 years. He graduated from Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980. As well as caring for the health of the Zoo’s animals and promoting the Zoo’s mission of educating and inspiring Hawaii’s keiki, he mentored many young aspiring veterinarians along the way. With his permission, we have reprinted his memoir of his time at the Honolulu Zoo, originally published for Honolulu Zoo Society members.

March 24, 1988: My “Start Date” at the Honolulu Zoo 30 years and 3 months ago resulted from my selection as Zoo Veterinarian by Jerry Marr (Zoo Director), Walter Ozawa (Parks Department Director) and Dr. Allen Miyahara (UH Veterinarian). At that time I had no idea it would last for 3 decades.

I remind the zoo keepers that I have worked here longer than many of them have been alive. I am so grateful to all who have worked at the zoo for all their support for all these years. And I mean all the zoo staff, from the vet staff, the animal staff, commissary staff, grounds and maintenance staff, administrative staff, the Honolulu Zoological Society, Service Systems staff, the Front Office/ticket booth staff, and even the Security staff. They have all assisted and supported me in caring for the zoo animals, and I especially appreciate their support for those times when my efforts were insufficient or inadequate.

I was hired as an entry level Zoo Veterinarian to work under the guidance of Dr. Patrick Leadbeater. The City brought in Dr. Amy Shima from the San Diego Zoo for a couple of weeks to train me and to assess our zoo hospital. The City then sent me on an orientation/training trip for two and a half months to mainland zoos. I spent most of my time at the St. Louis Zoo and the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, but I was also able to visit the zoos in Cincinnati, Lincoln Park in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and the International Crane Trust. Later I spent a couple of weeks with Dr. Shima at the San Diego Zoo. All this exposure was very opportune training for me as I assumed the lead role of Honolulu Zoo Veterinarian in 1989.

Our zoo vet hospital at that time was a quaint small house on zoo grounds that I believe Paul Breese said was built in 1953. At one time that eventual zoo hospital was the home for the zoo curator and later zoo veterinarian. That veterinarian was Dr. Calvin Lum. Many years ago one of Dr. Lum’s son, Jory, was hired as a zoo keeper. Jory visited the clinic and pointed out to me that the surgery room used to be his bedroom. The other identical house built on zoo grounds originally was the home for the Zoo Director. When the curator’s home was converted to the hospital, the director’s home was converted to become the zoo keeper meeting and locker/shower facility. It is currently being used by the staff of Service Systems.

We were very lucky that in 2004 the City and the Zoo Society, along with individual benefactors (Mark Bogart) were able to fund the construction of a new zoo hospital. I based the floor plan on the design of the Miami Metro Zoo’s hospital, and the whole project including the buildings and equipment cost around $4 million. We moved into the new hospital in late 2005.

Since that time we have cared for many of the zoo animals in the new hospital. We have even assisted outside agencies in caring for non-zoo animals: Hawaiian bats, Hawaiian Monk Seals, Yellow Belly Sea Snakes, Brush Tailed Rock Wallabies, and several others.

There have been other non-zoo animals that we did not care for but had to interact with, most notably “Tyke” the elephant. There was also the live Cobra found at the airport, the live Cougar that was confiscated from a home in Hawaii Kai, and the live Fishing Bat found at the wharf, among others.

Thirty years is a long time to care for an animal. Inevitably and sadly it means that you will outlive many of the animals that you care for. This is felt most strongly by the primary zoo keepers who provide daily care for the years that they work at the zoo. But medical care providers can also develop associations, relationships, and even bond with individual zoo animals.

I would like to tell you about some of the zoo animals that I will never forget.

The reptile keepers will have to forgive me for saying that it can be difficult to “bond” with a reptile. But some reptiles have such a strong presence that they had an aura about them. “Goliath” our male alligator was such an animal. He didn’t move much and he often just lay on the grass or floated in the pond. But as you approached him, all he had to do was open his eyes and look at you and you immediately became aware that he wasn’t a floating log, he was a living dinosaur.

Some birds can live for a long time. “Abby” our Abyssinian Ground Hornbill is in his forties. I think “Abby” is intelligent enough to recognize individual people. He will frequently come up to the exhibit fence when people are nearby, but he seems to actually interact with you the more often and the longer you “know” him. Recently he was brought up to the hospital when he was soaked and very disheveled. He was stressed and not very responsive, but after a while he reacted to me when I called him over to stand in front of a heat lamp.

Many years ago we had a female Crested Celebes Macaque named “Gabby”. She was very responsive and friendly, often turning her back up to the fence to have her back scratched. Every year I had to dart her to sedate her for her annual examination. This would stress her in the beginning of the procedure but she would eventually just place her hind end up against the fence, like saying “go ahead, get it over with already”. All the primates recognize me as the person who darts them, but “Gabby” was different. She was the only primate in my 30 years here who would forgive me. Always within a couple of days of darting she would be friendly to me again and would present her back for scratching.

“Pandji” was the greatest tiger I have known. He was our male Sumatran tiger who had a medical condition with his esophagus. One of my veterinary technicians at that time actually helped to hand raise him when he was a cub at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. His benign disposition was a great help to us when we were treating him here because at one time he was unconscious for over two days. One of my colleagues, the late Dr. Phil Kau, inserted a jugular catheter into his neck vein and we had him on an IV drip continually, until he woke up. We had to quickly remove the catheter and exit his sleeping quarters. Although he was aware of our presence inside his sleeping quarters, “Pandji” made no aggressive moves towards us. Later it became evident that he had developed a severe problem with his esophagus. Dr. Kau and I diagnosed it as a stricture in his esophagus, deep in his chest, at about the level of his heart. There was nothing else that we could do for him. Another colleague, Dr. Jim Scoggin, referred a human Gastroenterologist, Dr. Bill Hartman to assist us. Dr. Hartman brought down all his own equipment, all his staff, and they treated him surgically, as best they could with human equipment. “Pandji” did okay for about a month, and then he got sick again. Dr. Hartman came down and worked on him again, and again, and again, for several months. As he modified his procedure (there were very few references in the literature to treat this condition) “Pandji” lasted longer before he needed treatment again. Eventually Dr. Hartman’s treatment lasted a year and we would only need to call him in whenever we did “Pandji’s” annual exam. Dr. Hartman saved “Pandji’s” life when veterinarians could do no more for him. Throughout this time of multiple immobilizations “Pandji” was compliant, cooperative, and dignified.

“Apollo” was the greatest lion I have known. Where “Pandji” was compliant and quiet, “Apollo” could be feisty, angry, and very dangerous. “Apollo” was the only animal in my 30 years that I was afraid of. There were several other animals who were also dangerous and worthy of great respect, but unlike other animals, “Apollo” was not dangerous because he was afraid or anxious or stressed. He was dangerous because he meant to be. When he needed to be darted for sedation he was not afraid. He wouldn’t try to run away, no, he would charge me. He would jump up on the fence, roar loudly and bite the chain link, crimping the links with his canine teeth like the fence was made out of plastic. When a full grown male lion does that 2 feet away from your face and you are standing there alone, besides putting your faith in the almighty you put your faith in the chain link fence. As “Apollo” got older and slowly came down with big cat old age problems like cataracts and kidney problems, his attitude, persona, and reaction times slowly changed. He became like a feisty old man in a nursing home, diminished from his youth, but still having regal character inside him.

“Kruger” was the greatest rhino I have known. He was also the biggest rhino I have known, albeit that was because he was overweight. But as huge as he was, and with his massive horn, he was still quiet and gentle. As he got older, we determined that he was having kidney problems. We could not reverse his kidney problems and we were limited as to what we could do to treat him. One of the medications we gave him was supplemental IV fluids. We did not have a containment chute big enough to restrain him. But “Kruger” was so calm and gentle that he would allow me to stick large needles into his ear veins to give the IV fluids. And so without any physical restraint he would line up next to a fence, let me insert the needles, and just stand there for the fluids to flow in, so long as someone kept feeding him apples and produce. We did this multiple times. One time we had at least two IV lines flowing and he stood there for a couple of hours to allow several liters of fluid to go in, all the while happily munching away on apples. “Kruger” also liked to get scratched, he had a soft spot at the base of his neck.

“Kihei Iki” and “Kihei Ha ehu ehu” were two of the most unique animals I have ever cared for. They were two Hawaiian Hoary Bats that we were able to keep alive for 3 and 5 years respectively. As federally listed endangered species, no one can keep Hawaiian bats. But if they are found injured and deemed non-releasable then they were turned over to us for care. I have developed a tremendous interest and respect for all bats, but especially for our Hawaiian Hoary Bat (‘Ope’ape’a). At a bat conservation field workshop in Arizona they cautioned us to always handle hoary bats with leather gloves because they will bite hard. But I have found that Hawaiian Hoary bats are much more gentle and calm. They quickly acclimated to captivity and I could daily feed them mealworms with my bare hands. They also liked to be stroked on top of their heads and would doze off after eating. I was pleased to give testimony in support of Senator Sam Slom’s bill to name the ‘Ope’ape’a as the Official State Land Mammal for Hawaii.

As much as these animals have meant to me, and as much as I have come to respect the people that work here, there was something more that kept me working here. That was my belief in the zoo itself. Soon after I started working here I pondered why the zoo continued to exist, what was its justification. I concluded that its purpose was for conservation education for the children of Hawaii. That was the justification, and because of that the zoo existed, and because of that it justified keeping these exotic animals in captivity, and because of that it justified me being here to take care of them.