CORVALLIS, Ore. — This Boots was made for flopping; that’s just what seals do.
Boots, a popular 35-year-old harbor seal from the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, flopped her way into the hearts of doctors and students alike at Oregon State University’s Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital last week when she underwent medical testing that revealed an ulcer in her esophagus.
The harbor seal had been struggling with swallowing and keeping food down for several months, leading aquarium staff to fear she had a cancerous growth in her throat. Boots received some treatments and an ultrasound, X-rays and blood tests at the aquarium in the spring, but when her behavior didn’t improve, the team reached out to OSU for more testing.
Her visit to OSU on Thursday made for one of many hands-on learning opportunities for veterinary students on rotation in the teaching hospital, a vital part of their education and training.
Oregon Coast Aquarium lead veterinarian Dr. Dan Lewer worked closely with fellow aquarium veterinarian Dr. Anna Wepprich and OSU anesthesiologists Dr. Ron Mandsager and Dr. Andrew Claude to anesthetize Boots and conduct a CT scan, which showed an anomaly in her throat.
Boots then went to OSU assistant professor of small animal medicine Dr. Stacie Summers and small animal resident Dr. Yanick Couture for an endoscopic exam to look inside her throat. They found a concerning mass of necrotic tissue and took a sample, which clinical pathologist and dean of OSU’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Sue Tornquist analyzed and determined to be a severe esophageal ulcer and not cancer.
“This was good news: We found something we can treat in theory, and this animal will get relief because of the diagnostic capabilities at Oregon State,” said Lewer, an alumnus of OSU’s veterinary college. “It would not have been possible to make this diagnosis without the team in its entirety today — the imaging, anesthesia, internal medicine and clinical pathology teams all were vital in making this diagnosis.”
Boots is one of the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s founding animals, having been there since 1992, and is a fan favorite, her keepers said. She was featured on an episode of “Crikey! It’s the Irwins!” in 2019, and a few weeks ago, a little girl had a Boots-themed birthday party at the aquarium.
“Boots definitely has the most personality of all our seals. She’s always looking out at people; she likes to wave her flipper at you,” keeper Ashley Griffin-Stence said. “A lot of our guests know her.”
In addition to staff veterinarians, Lewer estimated around 30 veterinary students observed parts of the proceedings on Thursday, which allowed them to learn about the specific challenges of harbor seal care.
Because marine mammals need to stay warm in ocean water, their vasculature is buried deep beneath layers of blubber, making it tricky to place a venous catheter to deliver anesthesia, Mandsager said. For Boots, Wepprich had to insert the catheter between her vertebrae. Harbor seals also struggle to breathe on their own while anesthetized, Mandsager said, so Boots was on a ventilator during the testing.
While this was Boots’ first trip to the hospital, in May, OSU cardiologist Dr. Kate Scollan brought a cardiology resident and a fourth-year veterinary student to Newport for hands-on experience performing medical tests on Boots and her pal Skinny, who at 48 is the oldest known harbor seal. Both seals were rescued as pups and deemed non-releasable, aquarium staff said. In the wild, harbor seals live to about 20, but often live 30 years or longer in zoos and aquariums.
Fourth-year student Maddie Barrett helped monitor Boots’ vital signs under anesthesia at the hospital.
“This is really cool for me; we don’t see a lot of nontraditional animals at the hospital,” said Barrett, who did an externship at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 2022. “As someone who loves exotic animals and marine mammals in particular, it’s been really special to be a part of this.”
Hands-on training is a crucial part of veterinary college, Tornquist said. Students start labs in their first term, so they can begin practicing common procedures like drawing blood, placing catheters and conducting physical exams.
“They need to have the time and opportunity to practice it over and over, with guidance. There’s a lot of motor skills involved, and it’s also really important in building confidence,” she said. “If you’re going to do surgery on someone, you’d better feel like you know what you’re doing.”
By their fourth year, students spend all of their time in rotations, working alongside licensed veterinarians at OSU’s teaching hospital as well as at the Oregon Humane Society in Portland. They take care of farm animals through OSU’s Rural Veterinary Practice, and some students are able to learn about exotic animal care at the aquarium, the Oregon Zoo or the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore.
“Some of the more unusual experiences, like going out to the coast, really help to keep students engaged,” Tornquist said. “If you can introduce some interesting animals and species, it really makes them excited about what they’re doing.”
As for Boots, her treatment plan will include medicine in her fish, along with lidocaine- and barium-soaked squid to help heal the ulcer before it causes any more pain, Lewer said.
“It’s just really cool to have four teams mesh their superpowers together for the common good of a single patient — in this case, a very special harbor seal to all of us at the Oregon Coast Aquarium,” he said.
About the OSU Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine: The college serves the needs of Oregon, the nation and the world by training the next generation of practice-ready veterinarians, providing state-of-the-art diagnostic and clinical services and supporting the continuing education of veterinary practitioners. Biomedical research conducted at the college increasingly expands the scope of veterinary medicine to address both animal health issues and the relevance of animal diseases to public health.