Subscribe to get tough, fair journalism seven days a week.
Subscribe today

Welcome to the jungle

Dr. Erica Lipanovich frees a Honeyeater bird from a net during her most recent trip to Guam. Since 2010, she has been helping save endangered birds on the islands of Guam. (Submitted)
Dr. Erica Lipanovich frees a Honeyeater bird from a net during her most recent trip to Guam. Since 2010, she has been helping save endangered birds on the islands of Guam. (Submitted)

Of the Keizertimes

Dr. Erica Lipanovich loves exotic animals.

How much?

Let’s put it this way: she uses her vacation time each year to help rare birds on Guam.

Lipanovich, who received her doctorate degree in Veterinary Medicine in 2004 from Mississippi State University, moved to Oregon with her husband in February. She is a veterinarian at Willamette Valley Animal Hospital (WVAH) at 4975 River Road North in Keizer, while also helping with the hospital’s new clinic in Tualatin.

“My husband and I vacationed here in Oregon several years ago and knew this is where we wanted to be,” said Lipanovich, who previously was the first full-time veterinary at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo. for more than six years. “I was burned out, being a single practitioner at the zoo.”

WVAH co-owners John Maddigan and wife Sheri Morris interviewed Lipanovich via Skype and made the hire.

“She’s just amazing with her personal skills,” Maddigan said. “She makes for a wonderful veterinarian.”

It didn’t hurt that Lipanovich had both the experience and pedigree.

After all, her dad, Charles Wilson, is the former director of the Memphis Zoo, often rated as one of the country’s top zoos.

“Zoos are what I’ve known my whole life,” she said. “It’s what I know. They are a very comfortable setting. My dad instilled a good foundation in me of the purpose of a zoo. He helped make Memphis Zoo big. He got the pandas there. He did Cat Country, the children’s area and a new entrance.”

Lipanovich recalls her dad sometimes bringing animals from the zoo home if they were needed for an early morning TV interview.

“My mom is deathly afraid of snakes,” Lipanovich said. “So the first area my dad sent me to was the reptile area, so that I wouldn’t be afraid of them. One night he brought home a snake. He hid it in my closet and said, ‘Don’t tell mom.’ But mom knew there was a snake. That night she said, ‘I know there’s a snake in this house, I just don’t want to know where it is.’”

By the age of 14 Lipanovich knew she wanted to be a vet and was already working at an animal clinic. After veterinary school, Lipanovich worked in Phoenix for two years before spending six years at Dickerson Park Zoo.

In 2010, Lipanovich was asked to join the Mariana Avifauna Conservation (MAC) project, a Division of Fish and Wildlife program initiated in response to the threat of the Brown Tree snake in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Following World War II, the snake was accidentally introduced to Guam on U.S. military cargo.

“The snakes took out all of the native birds,” Lipanovich said.

According a 2008 MAC report on the Bridled White-eye conservation project, there have been 76 credible sightings of the snakes on the island of Saipan, plus 10 sightings on Tinian and four on Rota.

“This introduced species was responsible for the extinction or extirpation of nine of 12 species of native forest birds on Guam within the last half-century, and is believed to be the single greatest threat to terrestrial ecosystems in the CNMI,” the report stated.

It’s been a hard-to-stop threat.

“It has proven difficult to get rid of the snakes,” Lipanovich said. “One thing that’s been tried is having mice loaded with acetaminophen. I’m not real sure how successful it’s been.”

Each year, Lipanovich and her group take a couple of endangered species of birds and bring them to other islands to help with breeding.

“The Division of Fish and Wildlife came up with nets to trap the whole species,” she said. “We hold about 50 of them in cages, then they are taken to another island.”

One species has been the Rufous Fantail bird.

“They are cute little buggers,” Lipanovich said. “They have black feathers by their mouth, which look like mustaches gone wrong. They are quite adorable.”

Lipanovich doesn’t hide her passion for the program.

“It’s a fantastic program,” she said. “I’m so honored to be in it. It’s been so successful, DFW has continued the project to 2032.”

The success has been proven with one of the bird species.

“It started with 300 birds and went up to 3,000 birds in three years,” Lipanovich said. “The populations are booming.”

Since she is no longer with the zoo in Missouri, this year Lipanovich paid her own way for the trip and was gone for 17 days.

Until recently, Lipanovich was filling in for veterinary friend Mitch Finnegan, who was fired from the Oregon Zoo.

Finnegan got his job back in mid-July.

“I was over there on my two days off from here,” she said. “I was there a couple of weeks, then I went on my trip. It was just like being at my old job.”

Lipanovich, who splits her time between the WVAH clinic here and one in Tualatin, has also been helping the Wildcat Haven Sanctuary’s move out of Sherwood. She anticipates her workload in Keizer changing soon.

“I haven’t seen many exotic animals here yet,” she said. “I suspect that will be changing. We still haven’t advertised that I’m here. Mostly I see domestic animals now, but I’m hoping to get more exotics.”

Maddigan said there will be more room for exotic animals with the addition of 1,450 square feet to the building, which will include an area in the back for such animals.

“It will be done by the end of August,” he said. “It will give us more capacity to do surgeries.”