Dr. Hubert “Doc” Paluch has treated tigers, harbor seals, elephants, whales and lions.
As an exotic animal veterinarian for nearly 40 years and now zoo director/director of animal health at the Cape May County Zoo, Paluch has a unique profession.
How many people can say they’ve monitored the heartbeat of a cougar under anesthesia, or tagged the tail of an alligator, or examined a shark?
Paluch, 64, of Upper Township, traces his roots not to an exotic wildlife locale but to a small town outside Green Bay, Wis., where his family had a small dairy farm.
“I was born and raised on a farm, and I was always interested in animals. … So when I got into high school, I decided I might try going into medicine, and then I decided veterinary medicine is what I liked.”
That career path led Paluch to study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an undergraduate and to the University of Missouri-Columbia for veterinary medicine, where he did an internship with the St. Louis Zoo in 1972 and 1973.
“That’s when I decided zoo medicine, aquatics and marine mammals was what I wanted to do,” he said. “At that time, it wasn’t as advanced as it is now. Tranquilizers and medicine we used in exotics wasn’t as well known as it is now. It was challenging to work with different medicines and different animals, so I just fell in love with it that way.”
Paluch’s career led him to a veterinary practice in California and patient lists that included whales, dolphins and seals.
“Then we had some smaller zoo facilities we took care of, some studio work for documentaries, and televisions shows and series that had animals in them,” he said.
Shows included “Those Amazing Animals,” a weekly documentary series in 1980 and 1981 whose hosts included Burgess Meredith and Priscilla Presley.
He also worked at Safari Park in California and Great Adventure. He started at the Cape May County Zoo in the late 1980s.
Paluch is a soft-spoken man with a calm demeanor. Asked whether he liked some of the zoo’s approximately 250 species of animals more than others, he answered diplomatically: “No. I like them all. Some of them like me more than others, but that’s part of the profession, too.”
Some animals maintain their wild status and do not want to associate with people. Others — such as Rocky, the zoo’s 12-year-old tiger that was hand-raised as a cub — are more personable.
As Paluch and a visitor walked past Rocky’s cage on a recent weekday morning, the tiger calmly walked close to the cage, chuffing in a tiger’s equivalent to a house cat purring.
“If he didn’t like us, he’d be stalking us,” Paluch said.
Paluch cannot recall how many species he has treated and examined over the years, although his abbreviated list is “anything from whales to rodents to elephants.”
“It’s a pretty good spectrum. I haven’t worked with all of them yet, but I’m trying,” he said.
“The final goal of everything is to make animals recover. Sometimes you’re faced with the fact they’re not going to. But it’s always rewarding to be able to turn an animal around, either by medicine or diet or management. There are a lot of factors that go into an animal’s health besides medicine. It’s understanding an animal’s behavior,” he said.
The Cape May County Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Bill MacQueen, executive director of the Cape May County Zoological Society, a nonprofit that works with the zoo to raise funds and build exhibits, said Paluch has made sure the zoo lives up to those standards.
“He knows the animals and the staff there as well as anybody can,” said MacQueen, of Cape May Court House. “He knows those animals personally, and he takes care of them on a personal level, and he’s done that over the years.”
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