In the Company of Animals

After 25 years as a human surgeon, Jim Grillo returned to his first love, and now makes his daily rounds at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans
Watch the audio slideshow of Jim Grillo working at the Audubon Zoo. Photos: Alonso Nichols. Slideshow: Taylor McNeil
April 30, 2012

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The doctor is on his way, but his patients appear not to notice. They are too busy grunting, clucking, slithering, lolling on their sides, hopping from perch to perch or stamping their huge feet. Some are quite sick; others are recovering nicely from injury or illness. Some are in a nasty mood. Others raise their heads as the man in khakis, a stethoscope dangling from his neck, draws near. He treats them all the same, with a deft, compassionate touch punctuated by a medley of soft, soothing sounds.

As he makes his rounds at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Jim Grillo, V05, is a man in his element. The zoo, which has about 1,500 animals living on 58 acres, is known for its strength in tropical species, naturally suited to the zoo’s park-like terrain, graced with stands of live oaks and dangling Spanish moss. The 63-year-old Grillo is one of three full-time vets working here.

He radiates an easy, unassuming manner that must have served him well during the 25 years when his patients were human and he was a head and neck surgeon in New York City—before he made his dramatic mid-life shift into veterinary medicine. He’s not the stereotypical human surgeon who powers his way forward by sheer force of personality. Rather, this doctor slips up on you unexpectedly, without fanfare. “Uh, hello,” he says quietly, glancing down. Grillo is of medium height. He has gentle brown eyes. Like sunlight and water, he is suited to this animal kingdom.

Two powerfully coiled Bengal tigers await us at the first stop on his rounds. Grillo makes clucking sounds to them through the bars. “Who’s my boy? Who’s my big boy?” he says to the nearest cat. The tiger responds with a low, throaty sound known as “chuffing,” indicating contentment, Grillo says. Neither tiger needs medical attention today.

Next door, an Indonesian pig called a babirusa, with small, tightly curved tusks on either side of the snout, instinctively flops down to have her back stroked as Grillo approaches. “She’s kind of shy,” he notes as he caresses the pig through the bars while murmuring, again and again, “Who’s my girl, who’s my girl, who’s my good girl?”

Droppings the size of grapefruit dot the floor of the giant shed leading to the next consultation. Two elephants stand side by side in the open air, tended by a young woman staffer. One is 48 years old, the other 39. They have been together for more than three decades. Grillo leans on the enclosure fence, beaming with pleasure at the pair before entering to examine them.

Looking for Clues

As one elephant lifts a giant foot for his inspection, it occurs to me—strangely, but also obviously—that these patients can’t talk. If they have been hurt, they can’t say how. If they feel pain, they can’t say where. This makes treatment something of a guessing game, but there’s also a positive side to the animals’ muteness. “They can’t lie to you,” says the doctor with a rakish grin.

Because animals can’t supply direct information, Grillo notes, they have to be observed closely for any behavioral changes. A sudden slackening of appetite, or a hitch in the animal’s stride, may be significant.

“That’s why I like to be out with the animals as much as I can,” he says. And that’s why at each stop along this morning’s tour, he is careful to check with the staffers on site for news of what they have noticed lately among the animals in their care.

Some animals give up their medical history more easily than others. A male rhinoceros, for example, is utterly unfazed by the concerted clapping and calling of Grillo and a staffer, who are determined to get the huge, armor-clad animal to swing toward them for a quick examination.

Eventually, the beast gazes at them, or somewhat toward them. This rhino appears to be doing fine. A second rhino, a female, recently had one of her two horns knocked off—how, exactly, no one knows—and Grillo has treated the site of the injury. “She’s recovering nicely,” he says, after examining the spot and patting her lightly on the head.

Minutes later, we visit Daphne, a tapir that Grillo characterizes, only partly tongue-in-cheek, as “one of my long-term relationships.” Daphne is lying on her side in a compact, grassy fenced area. She is 25 years old, somewhat arthritic in her late middle age, and suffered a toe infection that required daily treatment for about a year. Grillo approaches her with a wide grin. “Been awhile, Daphne, been awhile,” he murmurs before dropping to his knees beside her and hugging her around the neck. “Hey, my sweetie,” he says.

Daphne’s eyes get squinty and her head rears back as he strokes her belly—classic signs of pleasure in a tapir, according to a young staffer standing nearby. Animals with chronic conditions tend to be the ones that Grillo gets to know best and form the strongest attachments to, simply because of the duration of the link. “You get to love them,” the doc explains. “Daphne had us all worried for a while.”

There is something unaccountable about animals, something that makes us care for them beyond limit. Grillo taps into this dimension when he talks about animals and the “mystical” quality they embody for him. He has enjoyed being near them throughout his life. “I do have the most amazing job,” he says. “There’s nothing better than doing this.”

Course Correction

Grillo’s path to zoo work made a crooked line. After he completed medical school at Dartmouth, he entered surgical residency at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. On his first day in New York, he ventured over to the Bronx Zoo to offer his services as a physician to the staff members there, as well as a consultant on surgical procedures.

He met Emil Dolensek, the zoo’s legendary chief veterinarian. “He was the best person I ever knew, and kind of the most profound influence in my life,” Grillo says. During his residency, the young surgeon spent about two days a week at the zoo, and remained in touch with Dolensek after Grillo launched his surgical practice, right up until his mentor’s death in 1990.

Then, in 1999, Grillo hit one of those turning points in his own life, after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Long days spent lying in the hospital and later rounds of chemotherapy gave him ample time to think about his path, and in particular the road not traveled, the road lined with animals, which he still had time left to explore. In 2001 Grillo shut down his practice and entered veterinary school at Tufts. “I was 53,” he notes. He was the oldest student by far in his classes and says he felt more pumped up than he had ever been.

The transition had its challenges. He was an unknown quantity on the veterinary school’s Grafton campus. M.S.A. Kumar, a professor of biomedical sciences, remembers Grillo asking “meticulous” questions in class but remaining silent about his decades of professional history as a surgeon. “He was such a modest person; he didn’t let us know what his background was,” says Kumar. “I only learned that later, during his second or third year, from [a source in] the admissions office.”

Larry Engelking, Kumar’s colleague, had Grillo as a first-year in his physiological chemistry class and recalls the middle-aged student’s initial anxiety over having forgotten so much science that he once knew cold. Grillo confided to his teacher that he feared he might flunk the first quiz. “ ‘Just calm down,’ I told him, and after that he proceeded to jump right up to the top of the class,” says Engelking. “It was always a pleasure to see Jim standing in the doorway with some question or other.”

“Going back was the key to [my enthusiasm],” Grillo explains. “I didn’t have the same appreciation the first time around. But after filtering through a life in [human] medicine, things were even more miraculous to me. I was learning what underpins everything.” Animal and human were one: This was the takeaway that anchored Grillo in his zeal. Determined to work at a zoo when he graduated, he applied for jobs around the country and was hired at Audubon in the fall of 2006.

The Kindness Translates Well

Out among the animals, the applause is slight. One of Grillo’s favorite patients—though he’s reluctant to say “favorite” aloud for fear of offending others in his care—is a ruffed lemur named Stella, age 29, whose main problems include a cardiac murmur and a chronic infection in one foot; he already has performed several surgeries.

“She had a tumor, and we operated,” Grillo relates, “but once they’re in their late 20s, sometimes there may not be much you can do.” In describing Stella’s prospects, you can hear the level, comforting tone that he must have employed many times with patients and their families during his surgical days back in Manhattan. A lemur is a monkey-like creature, but the kindness translates well.

Alone, Grillo enters an area that contains a moat and some small trees and a rounded hut, like something out of the Flintstones. There he drops down on one knee to examine Stella. First, he strokes her tenderly to calm her. Then he says, “Let’s listen,” applying his stethoscope to her skinny chest. He continues talking quietly to her for a while, largely unobserved and unnoticed by the world. The photographer and I are 15 or 20 yards distant, standing on an arched bridge over a culvert, unable to hear most of what he’s saying. It’s a cloudy Monday morning in New Orleans. There’s a rush from a waterfall behind us and the sound of tropical birds squawking and pealing high in the wind.

Jim Grillo is hard at work, making it look easy, one animal at a time.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.