Living

This D’Iberville vet knows sea birds, snakes, sharks and skunks

Lots of kids like worms, slugs, roly polies, frogs, salamanders and other critters that crawl, hop, skitter or slither across the earth. Sometimes that appreciation carries over into adulthood, and sometimes it’s parlayed into a career.

Veterinarian James Askew

Veterinarian Dr. James Askew truly has treated almost “all creatures great and small,” from pets to predators. Examples: He has de-scented skunks (“They’ve told me I need to get that skunk funk out of the hospital”), repaired a bullfrog’s spine, treated an adorable ferret diagnosed with fungal gastritis, performed an ovario-hysterectomy on a skunk, checked an albino spectacled cobra for health papers, done orthopedic surgery on a cow’s legs and treated a ball python for dermatitis. Not to mention plenty of dogs, cats and other traditional patients.

“I’ve done sloths,” he said. “They’re the cutest things ever, until they try to bite you.”

A day at the office

One recent afternoon at Happy Tails Animal Hospital in D’Iberville, Askew removed a fishing hook from a Laughing Gull. The process took about 10 minutes, including examining the bird’s wings.

Critters have been a part of his life since childhood.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t know it, but I think my parents were preparing me to work with exotic animals,” he said. “They had gotten me Grzimek’s (‘Animal Life Encyclopedia’) and ‘The Encyclopedia of Wildlife.’ At first I looked mainly at the pictures, and then I knew almost as much as the veterinarians about animals.”

Askew, however, figured his future would be more about music than animals.

“I graduated from Gulfport High in 1980; I had been in Sounds Ahoy and the choir and several plays,” he said, then smiled. “If I do say so, I have a pretty good singing voice.”

Changing course

He was pursuing music in Los Angeles, “singing with several groups,” and he was helping a fan of one of the groups study biology. That experience brought the fascination with animals back to the surface. He went to Mississippi State University, completed a residency at Oklahoma State University, then went to Ross University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts in the West Indies. He graduated with his DVM in 1996.

Askew returned to the Mississippi Coast, where he has been practicing veterinary medicine since 1996, first at Saucier Veterinary Hospital and now at Happy Tails Animal Hospital. He’s a member of the Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Association of Avian Veterinarians. He’s certified in fish surgery and fish medicine and has also been certified in venomous reptile handling by the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians.

Certification for what?

Venomous reptile handling? Yep.

“I’ve done cobras and rattlesnakes. I’m a certified hot snake doctor,” he said, explaining that a “hot snake” is a venomous one.

How do you doctor a hot snake? Very carefully.

For example, one patient was a rattlesnake with cranial trauma who received oral surgery repair in late 2014. During the surgery, which is documented in one of many videos Askew has posted on his YouTube channel (search James Askew DVM), he puts the snake in a long, sturdy plastic tube where it gets anesthesia. Once the snake is “under,” the surgery can begin. If it shows signs of stirring, back in the tube it goes to get another whiff of anesthesia. In another documented surgery, he works on a rattlesnake with a crushed vertebra and a missing rattle. Here, he uses a specially designed bag to lead the snake into the tube, where it continues to receive anesthesia as the surgery proceeds.

“I think the work on venomous snakes is the most intense thing I do,” he said.

Bucket list critters

Askew has some bucket-list critters.

“An African slug would be really cool,” he said. “You know, those big guys, grow about this big.”

Some of the more exotic animals he treats are pets, but often they are wild creatures brought in by people or organizations, such as Wild at Heart wildlife rescue.

“And I’ve done shark oral surgery over at the Gulf Coast Research Lab,” he said. “There’s really not much I won’t do. In fact, there’s nothing I won’t do.”

Several years ago, a female sea turtle that was hit by a boat and suffering an injury to her humerus was one of his patients. When her recovery was complete, there was another complication: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

“We couldn’t set her free, so we had a pet sea turtle for three months,” he said. The turtle was radio tagged and, after the water was deemed safe enough, she was released back into the Gulf. Askew got tissue samples before she returned to her natural habitat.

“Someday, I hope, I can see what happened to her and how everything has affected her,” he said.

Healing and research

That combination of healing and research is another facet of Askew’s work.

“I had a frog that had a broken back, and I used spinal rods on it,” he said. “We’ve had the technology for humans for 20 years but somebody needed to be willing to apply it to frog — or hamster — medicine.”

“Today, I am growing maggots,” he said with the delight of a middle-schooler. In fact, spend just a few minutes in his presence, and Askew’s slightly skewed sense of humor is evident.

“You have to be sick to do this job,” he said with another gleeful laugh.

About the maggots, though. A case of parasitic turtles suggests a specific species of flies is targeting the turtles, and Askew is growing the fly larvae to determine exactly what’s going on.

“It may be that we have a whole new species of flies here,” he said.

Cricket sickness?

A cricket breeder went to him for help after his crickets started dying in disturbing numbers. It turned out the crickets had an infection, and Askew was able to “save something like 20,000 crickets. How cool is that?”

Ultimately, he said, the work is to benefit animals.

“We have two sayings. Compassion is the right of all creatures, and no creature is too large or too small to work on,” he said.

The combination of antics and real animal science has attracted attention, with talk of a possible television show. One film company, he said, has put together a teaser for Animal Planet.

And now for something completely different. Askew has “refurbished a 1968 Ford F850 fire truck for animal rescue,” he said. The truck, complete with flashing red lights, has a 12 1/2 -foot-long bed in the back to transport larger creatures, such as a pygmy sperm whale (the plight of one stranded on the Coast following Hurricane Georges in 1998 led to the creation). That’s not to say much smaller critters couldn’t get a ride in the fancy firetruck.

“Can’t you see me with a frog with diarrhea on the seat next to me, with the lights flashing? Outta the way!” he said, cracking himself up.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

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