On a Thursday morning in March, veterinary technician Vanesa Rodriguez briefs Dr. Lara Backus on the treatments two sugar gliders are scheduled to receive that day, stopping to note that the tiny possums have come in “to get their nails done.”
A few minutes later, Rodriguez and Backus are in an examination room holding a tan and brown sugar glider, Bella, as the animal’s sibling, whose name is Brother, watches from his carrying case. But this is no day at the spa for the marsupials. They shriek as the vet and tech take turns clipping their nails, carefully avoiding the pads of their hands.
At Maryland Avian & Exotics Veterinary Care in Rockville, Backus, her colleague Dr. Lisa Carr and their team treat animals of all shapes and sizes—from pythons and box turtles to guinea pigs and hedgehogs. (They don’t treat dogs or cats.) Founded by Carr in 2012, the center provides veterinary services ranging from routine grooming and checkups to surgical procedures such as tooth extractions and spays and neuters.
Weighing in at 143 grams, Bella is obese, Backus informs her owner, but her brother is a healthy weight. As she does with all new clients, Backus assembles a husbandry packet for the owner with instructions on proper nutrition and information about common diseases the animals can contract.
Backus, who lives in Rockville, came to Maryland Avian & Exotics in August 2018 after working at The Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine outside of Seattle. She says owning exotics—she has an African grey parrot, Lawrence, and a corn snake named Bellatrix, and used to own leopard geckos—has made her sympathetic to the struggles of finding a specialized veterinarian to treat them. “I wanted to kind of be that person for other people,” says Backus, 29.
Her next patient after the sugar gliders is a blue-fronted Amazon parrot named Raja, whose diet consists of mostly home-cooked foods such as bread and vegetables. “You eat better than me, mister,” Rodriguez jokes as she looks over the bird’s file. Parrots are prone to high cholesterol if they eat a lot of bread or fatty things, Backus says, and Amazons specifically are at risk of developing fatty liver disease. She recommends that Raja’s owner, a new client, change his diet to include more pellets, then takes blood samples that will be sent to a lab specializing in exotic animals. “A lot of the time you’re telling people that they’ve been doing something wrong for the last 10, 15 years,” Backus says.
Wabby the rabbit, who comes in after Raja, has a different issue: She’s eating less than she usually does, a symptom of a condition called GI stasis, which is a slowing down of the digestive system. Rabbits are tied with guinea pigs for the animal the center sees the most of, Backus says. The fluffy white bunny lays perfectly still as her blood is drawn, behavior that occurs when bunnies are sick, the vet explains. A quick examination reveals that Wabby has a slight heart murmur and is also a bit dehydrated. Her blood will be sent to a lab—she’s 5 years old, and most rabbits have a life expectancy of six to eight years.
Not all animals treated at the center are as docile as Wabby, Backus says. She recalls a time when a sick green tree python came in, and “the second you’d try and get it, it was striking at you.”
“Basically, I was kind of having to do a Steve Irwin in terms of getting it out of the cage,” she says. “I ended up grabbing it right when it was trying to go for my face.”
Lunging snakes aside, Backus enjoys her work at the center, and veterinary medicine as a whole. “I really like animals in general,” she says, “but I also like helping people learn the best way to take care of them, helping owners help their own animals [and] give them the best quality of life as possible.”