Dottie the Dolphin was not doing well. She was in acute kidney failure caused by complications from kidney stones and the staff at SeaWorld knew they would have to try something never done before if they were going to save her life. Dottie was to become the first cetacean to ever undergo peritoneal dialysis. A team of renowned specialists was gathered and, in the middle of it all was Dr. Todd Schmitt, a member of the Colorado State University DVM Class of 1996 and senior veterinarian at SeaWorld San Diego.
Ever since he was a teenager, Todd Schmitt had wanted to be a veterinarian at SeaWorld. Growing up in landlocked Montana, he cultivated a childhood fascination with all things aquatic, especially dolphins. The son of a veterinarian, each step he took along his academic and professional journey was designed to get him closer to his goal. Today, as senior veterinarian at SeaWorld San Diego, Dr. Schmitt feels like one of the luckiest guys on the planet.
“When I was in high school, I got in touch with the veterinarian at SeaWorld and asked him what I needed to do to become a veterinarian at SeaWorld,” said Dr. Schmitt. “It turns out he had gone with my dad, J.B. Schmitt, to veterinary school at Washington State University. It was just an odd coincidence, but he did spend some time giving me a little bit of coaching on what I needed to do.”
When Dr. Schmitt began the veterinary medical program at Colorado State University, he immediately went to work seeking out people from whom he could learn about aquatic animals (quite a few, it turns out, especially given that Colorado is landlocked as well). Dr. John Reif, an epidemiologist, studied dolphins in Florida and Texas. From Dr. David Getzy, he learned about fish. Dr. Terry Spraker studied fur seals in Alaska. Dr. Terry Campbell, a former SeaWorld veterinarian, came during Dr. Schmitt’s senior year. Dr. Schmitt also established a student chapter of the Marine Mammal Medicine Club, even arranging to fly to Colorado sea lion cadavers for students to get hands-on experiences with marine mammal anatomy.
Following graduation, Dr. Schmitt moved to Las Vegas and then San Francisco for private practice, where he developed his surgical and practice skills. After five years, he began an aquatic animal internship at the Mystic Aquarium Institute for Exploration in Connecticut. He returned to California and soon got a call from SeaWorld to see if he was interested in contract work. In 2002, he was hired fulltime at SeaWorld San Diego.
Today, Dr. Schmitt’s life is filled with a cacophony of sea mammals, birds and fish. He tends to a flock of 350 penguins (mostly preventive care but also setting the occasional fractured leg or wing) and thousands of other waterfowl, turtles, sharks, whales, tuna, and, of course, dolphins. He likens his work to a blend of small animal, large animal, marine animal, exotic and herd health practice.
“Much of what we practice at SeaWorld is preventive medicine,” said Dr. Schmitt. “We do a lot of routine exams to keep a pulse on what’s going on, and definitely focus on being proactive rather than reactive.”
Because of the difficulty in palpating sea mammals (blubber tends to obscure organs), bloodwork is often incorporated into routine exams as well as ultrasound. Aquatic animals at SeaWorld, when possible, are trained to perform husbandry behaviors, such as swimming onto a platform, that allow trainers, technicians, and veterinarians to care for the animals with the least amount of stress to humans or animals. An on-site hospital and laboratory houses two clinicians, a pathologist, four medical technicians, and one veterinary technician.
“Like many animals, marine mammals tend to mask illness,” said Dr. Schmitt. “We really have to watch their food intake and monitor their behavior, as well as conduct routine physicals, to be sure everyone is staying healthy. The training team is a very important part of our animal husbandry program.”
Veterinarians also are involved with animal reproduction programs, either creating conditions for successful reproduction or preventing reproduction, and ensuring genetic diversity in species through sharing with other countries.
Dr. Schmitt also continues to hone his own skills, consulting with aquatic animal veterinarians around the world as well as taking advantage of continuing education opportunities. Most recently, he was back at Colorado State University for a wet lab on laparoscopic surgery with several other veterinarians under the tutelage of Dr. Dean Hendrickson. For that lab, two dolphin cadavers (the dolphins had beached themselves) were flown in so that the veterinarians could get experience in using laparoscopic techniques in the unique bodies of marine mammals.
Dr. Schmitt is particularly proud of the work that SeaWorld does with the Stranded Animal Program, a national initiative to rescue marine mammals. The program sees sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, dolphins, sea turtles, and more. Some are suffering from parasites or fungal infections, while a few are gunshot victims. The program boasts a success rate of 70 percent release back to the wild, while those that are too sick or injured to return to the oceans are humanely euthanized.
“This is a fun and diverse practice, but there is a serious side as well,” said Dr. Schmitt. “There is an element of research, because we want the animals in our care to have a good quality of life. The animals in our care are ambassadors for their species. At SeaWorld, part of our mission is education. As the listing of endangered sea animals increases, with listings of the killer whales, polar bears, and sea turtles, that job is more important today than ever before.”
As for Dottie the Dolphin, her veterinary care was extraordinary. She was initially treated with fluids, but her kidney enzymes kept going up. She went through five rounds of peritoneal dialysis which took her out of the danger zone but were not a permanent fix (it’s tough to keep a peritoneal catheter clean in an aquatic environment). A kidney stone specialist was brought in to treat her bilateral obstruction. A stent was placed and one stone lasered to restore function. Five days later, the peritoneal catheter was pulled and Dottie began a slow recovery.
“I’m happy to say that she is doing very well now,” said Dr. Schmitt. “Her flukes are a little scarred but she looks fine. Dottie’s just 22 (dolphins can live to be 35 to 40 years old), so we expect to have her with us for a long time.”