Sea student: Dr. Scott Weber

Fish-loving Worcester veterinarian heads marine-care corps at New England Aquarium
By Pamela  H.  Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2003

BOSTON — It is Tuesday morning at the New England Aquarium, and Dr. Scott Weber is giving the sea lions their weekly checkup.

A 300-pound male named Zuma slithers quickly and gracefully from the pool water onto the concrete edge.

The sea lions have been trained with hand signals — they are exceptionally smart — and, with direction from Paul Bradley, a marine mammal trainer, Zuma obligingly opens his mouth. Dr. Weber peers down his throat, and then checks the animal’s tiny ears and large, powerful flippers.

Dr. Weber, who lives in Worcester, speaks soothingly to Zuma as the procedure winds up. The agile animal slips back into the water and disappears beneath the surface.

At age 34, Dr. Weber has his dream job: He is the head veterinarian at one of the leading aquariums in the country. He oversees two veterinarians, three biologists, a laboratory office supervisor, a manager for exhibits, two environmental quality managers and a technician.

The team is responsible for the health and welfare of about 25,000 marine animals, from penguins to turtles to the little-known skink, a docile, square-jawed lizard native to Pacific atolls.

And, of course, the hordes of fish.

“We have 10,000, representing 500 different species,” Dr. Weber says, pride creeping into his voice.

It was his expertise with fish that landed Dr. Weber his job. He estimates that he is one of about 55 veterinarians in the country who focus on fish.

“A lot of veterinarians have zoo or exotic-animal experience, but not necessarily fish,” Dr. Weber notes. “So with the emphasis on fish, that was a big component.”

The specialty is on the cusp of taking off. Over the last two or three years, aquatic medicine has become a rapidly growing field, propelled in part by a relatively new view of fish as coveted pet, says Dr. Joerg Mayer, head of exotic-animal services at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton.

In 1991, 24 million U.S. households kept fish as pets; 10 years later, that number had more than doubled to 49 million, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“There’s more and more literature being published,” Dr. Mayer says. “The emphasis has been on commercial fishing, but now some fish are being imported for thousands of dollars. We can do a lot of fancy stuff with fish these days.” Dr. Weber also serves as an assistant clinical professor at Tufts, and Dr. Mayer often consults with him on marine animal cases.

Recently, they worked together on Freddy, a 3-inch-long goldfish that suffers from a small cancerous tumor on his scales. The two veterinarians performed surgery to remove the growth, flowing water over the gills to anesthetize the fish. Freddy has gone on to have radiation treatments and cryosurgery in an effort to freeze the tumor.

To anyone who may think this seems excessive, Dr. Mayer points out “30 years ago, no one would have brought a cat to Tufts for chemotherapy or extensive bone plating.”

“Attitudes and perceptions change,” he says, “and they’re changing about fish. I always say, `That little goldfish has the potential to outlive a dog or cat being treated at the moment.’ Everyone who sees Freddy falls in love with him.”

To Dr. Weber, all of the creatures at the aquarium — with its impressive exhibits of marine habitats from around the world — hold their own fascination.

As he observes the African black-footed penguins waddling over rocky outcroppings, Dr. Weber points out Robben, a scruffy looking 39-year-old female. She has now lived more than 10 years longer than her normal life expectancy. No one knows why, he says.

Dr. Weber allows that even he is awed by a special exhibit demonstrating how animals and ecosystems are linked. It starts with a lush South Pacific island, which shows the interconnections that bind different resources. Fresh water flows down a mountain to the mixed fresh and salt waters of a coastal mangrove forest, and eventually to the saltier waters of a tropical lagoon and coral reefs. All are filled with aquatic and amphibious life.

Dr. Weber moves on to the aquarium’s medical center, which opened to public view in 1997. Windows have been installed, allowing visitors to observe a frog being X-rayed or a sea otter undergoing surgery. Dr. Weber, who is utterly unassuming, must operate on stage, so to speak.

“It took a little getting used to,” he remarks.

What the public sees is only part of what goes on at the aquarium, which has the responsibility for saving marine animals that have been stranded along the coastline from Massachusetts to Maine. Indeed, the biggest challenges Dr. Weber has faced since coming to the aquarium in August 2001 have been the mass strandings of pilot whales and sea turtles.

He heads the aquarium’s four-member rescue and rehabilitation unit, which was the first responder to the pilot whale beachings on Cape Cod last July. The group spent three exhausting days trying to save the giant marine mammals.

“If the animal is in reasonable health, you try to get it out to water,” Dr. Weber explains. “The blubber makes them cook in the sun, and they have no bone structure to help support them. The crush makes it difficult breathing and causes damage to the liver.”

Several of the whales were returned to the ocean, but beached a second time and either died or had to be euthanized.

“They had skin damage and lung infections,” Dr. Weber says.

The rescue of sea turtles in November and December is an annual event. As soon as the water temperature drops, the turtles –including loggerheads, greens and the endangered Kemp’s ridley species — wash up on Cape Cod’s shores in various stages of a condition called “cold stunning.”

They are picked up by volunteer beachwalkers from the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and sent to the aquarium, where they are assessed.

“As they come in, they appear to be dead,” Dr. Weber says. “We use a fetal heart monitor. They are eligible for treatment if we hear a single beat a minute. Ninety percent are started on treatment and survive.”

Nineteen of the 101 turtles rescued from the 2002 stranding remain under treatment at the aquarium. The rest have been sent on to centers in Florida, Louisiana and Texas, where they are cared for until they are strong enough to be released back into the ocean.

Dr. Weber, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in various parts of the country, developed a love of animals early on.

“I can’t remember living without a fish in my life,” he says during a conversation in his small office on the fourth floor of the aquarium.

Later, there were dogs and cats. In the summer, his grandfather would take him to the family farm on the Rhine in Germany.

He graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in zoology, and, within a couple of years, entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

All during those years, summers were spent working with raptor rehabilitators, or at a zoo, or in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska. He spent one summer in Kenya doing ultrasounds on sheep, goats and camels for diseases that could be transmitted to humans.

`I knew I didn’t want a small-animal practice,” Dr. Weber says. “Farm animals were engaging, but I liked the fish work.”

After veterinary school he studied in Scotland for two years on a Thouron Fellowship. He spent the first year performing research on sheep at the University of Edinburgh. The second year, he did research on trout at the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling, where he earned a master of science degree.

Dr. Weber set his sights on a career in aquatic animal medicine, but the field was so new that he was unsure how he would fit in. After brief stints at an agricultural extension program in Arkansas and the New Jersey Aquarium, where he removed a large testicular tumor from a black sea bass, he came to Boston.

In addition to maintaining his clinical practice, Dr. Weber also publishes his research in professional journals. At the end of last year, he and a team from the aquarium traveled to the Amazon to work with agencies of the Brazilian government on how to assess the health of freshwater tropical fish, which are a major export for the South American country.

“The species of fish we were catching I had kept in my tank for 25 years,” he says. “It was incredible to see them in the wild.”

Dr. Weber, who lives with his partner in the Tatnuck section of Worcester, routinely works 60-hour weeks. The fish and turtles hold a particular interest, in part because veterinary medicine has devoted so little effort to learning about them.

What is more, he says, there’s just something really appealing about fish.

“You can’t say fish have personalities,” Dr Weber says, furrowing his brow.

“But then, maybe you can,” he adds, brightening as he recalls a pet from his childhood called Cortez, an 18-inch Arawana of iridescent hues that would eat out of his hand.