Behind the scenes: Zoo surgery

February 6, 2012

By Phil Noble

One of the best things about this job is the ability it gives you to photograph things you would never normally get to see in most walks of life. Whether that is pitch-side access to top sporting events, behind the scenes glimpses at royalty and presidents or getting close to wild animals, the opportunities are as varied as they are fascinating. Photographing a young Cheetah cub having a broken ankle repaired definitely falls into those categories.

Me and another news agency colleague had sat down with Chester Zoo’s marketing team a few years ago and discussed the possibility of doing different pictures at the zoo apart from the normal cute baby elephants and giraffes that regularly appear.

We had worked slowly with them to gain the trust of the keepers and zoo management by shooting a variety of behind the scenes jobs like the recent health checks on the tiger cubs.

I was really keen to photograph as many different things as possible at the zoo to give myself and therefore our clients an insight into what goes on. As with most things in life it’s the things that we seldom get to see that are often the most interesting.

So when the phone call came offering me the opportunity to photograph an operation to fix a broken ankle on a Cheetah, I jumped at the chance. Juba, the 9-month-old cub, had been born with a weakness in his leg that caused a fracture which had been picked up by the zoo’s vet team. The decision was made to operate.

There would only be two photographers inside the room along with the zoo’s vet team and the consultant orthopedic surgeon, Rob Pettitt, who normally operates on people at a hospital in Liverpool.

It would be quite a squeeze in the room with not a lot of space to move around during the actual operation so I rigged up a remote camera clamped to the stand holding the overhead light which I could fire using a Pocket Wizard wireless trigger to give me another angle.

The whole event was fascinating to see, from the beginning as the carnivore keeper gently brought the sedated cub into the theater and handed it over to the zoo’s amazing vet team who prepared Juba, to watching surgeon Rob perform his magic and insert the metal plate. Fiddly isn’t the word!

The only slight glitch in the procedure was when the Allen key needed to tighten the metal screws into the animal’s leg was not quite the right size. Amazingly, after a quick search of our camera bags, me and the other photographer produced tools used to tighten the legs on our monopods, and they fit. 15 minutes or so later, after being cleaned and sterilized, they were handed to the surgeon and the operation was completed.

Odd to think that a tool used to tighten the leg of a camera support was used to tighten the screws in the leg of the fastest land animal in the world. Not your normal Friday in the office!


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“A Day in the Life of a Mobile Veterinarian”

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive

Great information! Thanks for sharing about the behind the scenes this are the scenes that are rarely known by any.

Posted by zoyajack | Report as abusive