By Kristian Rasmussen
Dr. Mark Zehnder has dedicated his life to saving the lives of animals in the Columbia Valley. The morning of Thursday, May 10th, finds the veterinarian squinting into the sun beside Athalmer bridge hunting for an injured osprey.
The call came in to the veterinary hospital that morning, and reconnaissance and rescue of the injured creature are part of the duties of the day. The bird turns out to be on the other side of James Chabot Provincial Park, on the beach behind Eddie Mountain Memorial Arena.
“I walked over there and I found the bird just staring at me,” said Roi Golan, the concerned resident who reported the sighting. He leads Mark to the injured osprey. “He has been sitting there for the past five hours.”
The Invermere vet unfolds a blanket that he has brought for the task of retrieving the large bird of prey. He carefully approaches the cowering creature, edges closer and gently scoops the bird into the blanket.
Despite its apparent fright, the osprey submits, accepting Mark’s gentle touch. While carefully maneuvering around the bird’s extremely strong talons, Mark lifts it and notices a deep gash on one of its wings.
“This looks like a territorial dispute,” the veterinarian said. “There is nothing out there on the water that could have gotten it, unless there are sharks on Lake Windermere that we don’t know of!”
Mark gently places the bird inside a cage, which he covers with a blanket to ease the osprey’s anxiety. He loads the cage into his SUV for the drive back to his practice at the Invermere Veterinary Hospital.
The long-time veterinarian was raised on a ranch in the Columbia Valley by Swiss-born parents, Fritz and Vreine. After a lifetime around larger animals, Mark did not set out to become a small-town vet.
“Originally I wanted to work with wildlife,” he said, “but there aren’t a lot of ways to make a living in B.C. working with wild animals. You still get to pick up your interests though, like what we’re doing right now, chasing birds around.”
Mark has always been fascinated by the animal world. After graduating from David Thompson Secondary School, he completed one year of studies at the University of Lethbridge and six years of study at the University of Saskatchewan.
He graduated in 1989 and married his wife Ruth in 1990. The couple now has four children, Luke, 16, Jacob, 14, Naomi, 12, and Hanna, 8. Mark returned to the Columbia Valley to start practicing veterinary medicine in the fall of 1993.
An average day for Mark is anything but average. The vet will work on around 20 animals a day, ranging from grizzly bears to pet rats. The animal doctor has even received a call to tend to a butterfly, he said with amusement, admitting that it fell outside his realms of expertise.
The most exotic house call came from a circus troupe based outside of Red Deer, Alta, to work on a Siberian tiger. Unfortunately the vet was too late to help Saphira, the 18-year-old circus tiger, who eventually died from cancer.
The toughest part of the job for Mark is seeing the animals that he loves die or needing to be put to sleep.
“Even though the vast majority of the time that you euthanize animals you are doing them a favour, it is not something that I like,” Mark said. “My orientation is to keep animals alive.”
The life of a veterinarian can also be hard on family. Mark finds it difficult to plan time with his wife and children because he is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“You can’t really do all the things that you want to do,” he explained. “If my wife is planning a supper, or something like that, she can’t necessarily depend on my being there.”
Despite the challenges, Mark said he finds his career path extremely rewarding. He has a personal knack for surgery in the most peculiar of situations.
“I did a badger study where I implanted radio transmitters in the abdomens of badgers, so that biologists could track them in the wild,” he said.
But his most unusual surgery came locally, in Radium Hot Springs. Mark had to implant transmitters in rubber boa snakes to track their locations.
Even with his wide array of animal experiences, Mark requires an equally experienced team to back him up. Two veterinary technicians, Sarah Richards and Tania Kruger, assist with animal care, from ensuring they are fed and watered to helping with surgeries.
Sarah started as an animal groomer eight years ago. She was exposed to the animal world from a young age as her father was a veterinarian.
“This job is something different,” she said. “Just when you think that everything has gotten boring, you get an osprey or a wolf or a goat. There is always something different.”
A flair for handling the exotic is definitely helpful for the job, said her colleague, Tania Kruger. The most interesting animal Tania ever came into contact with was in Kelowna at a rescue education centre for alligators.
“A couple of them got into a fight,” she said. “One of the alligators bit the other one’s leg off. We did a surgery on the alligator to fix the hole where his leg once was.”
The friendly face at the doorway to Invermere Veterinary Hospital is Dana Strachan, a third vet tech responsible for the front-end operations for the animal care facility. The duties of gatekeeping are shared with the clinic’s animal friends. The two unofficial office mascots are Camilla, a Siamese cross, and Charlie, an Ocicat, who sleep peacefully in a tangled bundle on the front counter.