Most animal clinics are full of fluffy dogs and slinky cats, maybe a few birds. But throw in a python, a turtle, and several other exotic pets, and that would be an average day for Dr. Nielsen Donato.

Doctor to Wildlife

Donato is no ordinary veterinarian. He is a wildlife veterinarian, and exotic pet owners, hobbyists, and zookeepers seek him out so he can treat their unusual creatures.

As with all things, Donato’s love for creatures of all kinds began in childhood. “My dad was not a vet, but a general surgeon. He was very fond of animals, and he built a mini-zoo in our family resort. This was my introduction to the world of exotic animals. We had deer and porcupines. I took care of rabbits and pigeons.”

Back then, it was difficult to find a veterinarian who would treat his pets. Pet shops were not very popular then. “Just buy a new one,” he was told when any of his pets got sick. “That was my frustration.”

By definition, exotic animals are animals who are exported out of their native country. Most people would be surprised to learn that rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish and budgerigars are not native to the Philippines, and are therefore considered exotics. Species native to the Philippines that are not normally kept as pets include eagles and monkeys; these are considered wildlife.

Inevitably, Donato pursued a degree in veterinary medicine. He studied in Gregorio Araneta University Foundation, and volunteered at Manila Zoo, under Dr. Romulo Bernardo, and at Dr. Stephen Sison’s Exotic Animal Clinic in Malate. But where did he gain his expertise? “In
our country there is no specialization for any veterinary field, unless we go online and study, or attend a workshop to specialize in a [particular] veterinary field. When we graduate
from the university, we get very little knowledge about exotic animals. So I attend avian and exotic animal veterinary conferences abroad.”

Donato got most of his experience with both exotics and wildlife from Singapore, where he worked for several years. “I had the opportunity to work in the largest veterinary hospital in Singapore, Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital. I was hired not as a veterinarian, but as a veterinary technician. But this is where I really learned how to be a good vet.”

At the time, exotic pets were all the rage in Singapore. He recalls, “A lot of pet owners brought their exotic pets: turtles, tortoises, marmosets, hamsters, rabbits, ferrets, iguanas, skunks, frogs, kois, macaws, toucans and many other rare exotics. As a vet tech, I was not really allowed to do consultations, unless it was in the middle of the night, for an emergency. Our vets did not want to consult on the exotics, so they gave the exotic consults to me. This is how I learned to treat them, and how I became familiar with reptiles, pocket pets, avian animals, fish primates and other exotic animals. This is also where I developed my diagnostic and surgical skills in canine and feline medicine.”

In addition to the hands-on experience, Donato had the benefit of a great library. “The hospital had all the exotic animal books, and the special tools and equipment for treating them.”

Wild Stories

With such exotic patients come the most interesting stories! He shares, “My most difficult procedure was spaying an obese pot-bellied pig. It was the most difficult spay I have ever done! She was too oily and it was so difficult to operate. Another one was a cassowary from a private zoo. He was hospitalized and we were treating him. When he got stronger, he jumped from the enclosure! He ran all over the clinic, and the staff went running too.”

Rare animals are par for the course for Donato, but he does have a few favorites. “I think the rarest that I’ve seen would be an orangutan. He was brought here from a zoo for some tests.” He’s also treated an Aldabra tortoise which weighed almost a hundred pounds, and marmosets of different kinds. His other patients include rabbits, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, snakes, parrots, turtles, tortoises, pot-bellied pigs, fish, iguana, bearded dragons, and leopard geckos.

To treat them, Vets in Practice in Mandaluyong acquired special equipment and tools. “We have X-ray machines, facilities to confine them, the necessary variety of drugs, and of course our skills. But there is a long list of tools and equipment that I would love to have. Sadly, they are not available in the country, and they are costly and hard to find.”

Some of the services Donato performs may sound a little out of the ordinary. Deworming and blood tests are standards, but he often has to perform special services, like, “Surgical sexing, DNA sexing for birds, probing for sex determination in snakes, fecalysis, surgical procedures like spays and neutering for small mammals like rabbits, guinea pigs and others.” Along with all the services he provides, Donato also feels strongly about educating pet owners and exotics enthusiasts. “People think that if you’re into exotics, you’re doing something illegal.

But I’m an advocate of keeping exotics the right way. If you want to have exotic pets, we always advise owners to get legally acquired exotics, captive-bred, not wild-caught. They might be a little more expensive, but that’s because people invest in it: the housing, the husbandry, importation costs.” He advocates against the illegal acquisition of wildlife, especially since this bleeds into bad publicity for those in the legal business of exotics. It is a cause he promotes passionately.

Dr. Nielsen Donato practices in various Vets in Practice clinics: Maysilo Circle, Mandaluyong; Katipunan Ave., Quezon City, Alabang Business Tower, Muntinlupa; North Walk, San Fernando, Pampanga. He also consults at CARVELDON Veterinary Clinic Pasay at the Cartimar Commercial Center, and Animal Care Specialist Pasig in Tiendesitas, Pasig. He also hosts a TV show on GMA, called Born To Be Wild. You can find him on Twitter (@nielsendonato) and Instagram (@nielsendonato).

This appeared as “Healing the Fierce and Strange” in Animal Scene’s November 2015 issue.