Protecting Animals Against Infection at the Detroit Zoo

Zoo veterinarians use a range of vaccines developed for use in domestic animals to protect the species in our care. We use vaccines developed for use in domestic pigs to protect our warthogs, vaccines developed for horses to protect our zebras and vaccines developed for ferrets to protect our red pandas. We use human vaccines to protect our chimpanzees and gorillas against measles and polio virus. 

This photo of Pende was taken by Roy Lewis at the Detroit Zoo.

We are very happy to report that in late July we received shipment of a vaccine specifically made to protect susceptible zoo animals against infection with COVID-19. The vaccine was developed by veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis, and is being donated to 70 zoos and a dozen other wildlife organizations in the United States. 

During the course of the pandemic, the human and veterinary medical community has been working diligently to understand how coronavirus affects both human and animal health. At the Zoo, we have taken a number of measures to minimize the potential for infection in animals considered susceptible, and we have been fortunate that no animals in our care have contracted COVID- 19. Gorillas, lions, tigers and otters have become infected at other zoos in the United States. 

All of the animal care staff working with these susceptible species has been vaccinated against COVID-19, and we continue to use masks and gloves to minimize spread of infection. Despite this, we worry that supporting the health of an infected tiger or chimpanzee would be much more challenging than a dog or cat, and are extremely grateful to be able to provide vaccine protection against serious illness. 

This photo of Nikolai was taken by Lee Fisher at the Detroit Zoo.

Over the course of the last few weeks, we have been vaccinating the gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers, lions, North American river otters, sea otters and wolverines in our care with this new vaccine.  Each animal will receive two shots, three weeks apart, the same as is recommended for people. None of the vaccinated animals have shown any signs of feeling under the weather after their first vaccine, and we continue to monitor everyone carefully for adverse effects. 

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Polar Bear Cub Development and Welfare: A Team Effort from the Detroit Zoo

This photo of Suka and Astra was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

What’s more exciting than a polar bear cub? Two polar bear cubs! The birth of any animal here at the Detroit Zoo is exciting, but polar bears offer special cause for celebration. The Detroit Zoo is proudly home to the Arctic Ring of Life – one of North America’s largest state-of-the-art polar bear habitats. These rambunctious new cubs will grow up exploring the more than 4 acres of outdoor and indoor habitats and are the latest polar bears to call the Detroit Zoo home.

Astra and Laerke were born to mom, Suka, and dad, Nuka, on November 17, 2020. Staff from all over the Zoo watched specially equipped cameras in Suka’s maternity den with bated breath, waiting for the arrival of little Astra and Laerke. Once the cubs made their appearance, it was all hands on deck. Even with expert care, polar bear cubs have a high mortality rate in captivity. With this in mind, the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind was a relatively straightforward one – how do we give these cubs the best shot at long, happy and healthy lives?

Newborn polar bears are blind, thinly haired and weigh only around one pound. Despite being born between November and December, mothers and newborn cubs usually remain in the maternal den until late March or even early April. What happens in those five months is largely unknown. There has been very little long-term monitoring on polar bear cubs due to obstacles such as camera placement and staffing availability, which make observing activity in the maternal den challenging. With the combined efforts of team members with diverse skills and backgrounds, the Detroit Zoological Society has undertaken to monitor and report on the growth and development of Astra and Laerke through their first full year of life. With this project, Detroit Zoological Society staff hope not only to ensure that Astra and Laerke thrive, but also to provide a crucial resource for other zoological institutions around the world endeavoring to rear polar bear cubs.

This photo of Laerke was taken by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland.

In order to pursue this goal, the Detroit Zoological Society staff needed to come up with a plan that would grow and change alongside Astra and Laerke. Additionally, we needed to be able to monitor the well-being of the cubs from multiple perspectives, both physical and emotional. Phase One of this project has been championed largely by the Arctic Ring of Life staff, mammal curators, veterinarians and the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE). Just a few days after birth, Laerke appeared to need extra support. After careful consideration, we made the difficult decision to remove Laerke from Suka’s care and continue rearing her in the veterinary hospital. With staff never more than a radio call away, Laerke spent her first few months growing and thriving in a behind-the-scenes nursery before transitioning to her own living space at the Arctic Ring of Life. During this time, we were able to weigh Laerke, measure her, and monitor milestones in her growth. It is important to establish normal developmental ranges so that veterinary staff can assess the health and well-being of the animals under their care. Data gathered by tracking Laerke’s growth spurts and noting her key developmental milestones will go a long way towards understanding the needs of baby polar bears. Meanwhile, using cameras in the behind-the-scenes maternal den, we were able to observe Suka and Astra 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. While the presence of cameras in zoological settings is not unusual, prolonged 24/7 monitoring certainly is! Detroit Zoological Society staff came together to share this monumental task for a full 12 weeks. Animal care staff watched more than 2,000 hours of recorded video (120,960 minutes!) and gathered invaluable data on mother-cub denning behavior.

With hundreds of hours of video data, scientists from CZAAWE offered to help with data analysis, freeing up animal care staff to focus on the growing needs of the cubs. Using this valuable dataset, we have been able to answer questions critical to early polar bear development. How frequently does a baby polar bear nurse? When does a baby polar bear leave the nest for the first time? What does maternal behavior look like for a polar bear? With recent transitions to live observations, we have been able to watch as the cubs become increasingly confident and exploratory. We continue to work together to provide peak care and ensure excellent welfare for Astra and Laerke as they approach their eighth month. We look forward to keeping you updated on their progress!


– Dr. Kylen N. Gartland is manager of applied animal welfare science for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Here’s the Scoop: Injured Pelican Finds Refuge at the Detroit Zoo

An American white pelican believed to have survived last Michigan’s winter with fractures in both wings and an injured right foot has now found refuge at the Detroit Zoo after she was left behind by her scoop in Monroe, Michigan.

“It is uncommon that American white pelicans migrate through Michigan, but it happens from time to time,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society. “Unfortunately, when the rest of the pelicans left the area to continue on their migration, this girl simply couldn’t.”

In early May, concerned citizens reported seeing an injured bird at the Port of Monroe. She was picked up by a local licensed rehabilitator who then called the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) for help when the pelican was deemed non-releasable due to her injuries and refused to eat. When she arrived at the Detroit Zoo, she was weak, malnourished and unable to walk.  

“When we received her, she was underweight for the species – around 8 pounds,” said Van Dam. “After spending some time recuperating at the Detroit Zoo, she was able to pack on an extra 2 pounds. The average weight of an American white pelican can range from 10 to 15 pounds.”

During a medical examination, the DZS animal care staff determined that her injuries to both wings were old fractures, while her right foot injury seemed to be more recent. The cause of her injuries is unknown. 

“Quite honestly, she’s very tough,” said Van Dam. “It’s truly amazing that she was able to survive and keep herself fed with all of her injuries.”

DZS veterinary staff used two splint designs over a period of two months on her foot, which has since healed to the point where she can now use it. The damage to her wings, however, has rendered her permanently unable to fly. The American white pelican has joined four pink-backed pelicans in the American Grasslands habitat at the Detroit Zoo. 

“We’re still thinking on her name. We want to make sure we give her one that is strong and fitting of her personality,” said Van Dam. 

The newcomer can be distinguished by her larger stature, bright yellow beak and whiter feathers, with black tips on her wings. 

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Male Chimpanzee Born at Detroit Zoo in January Successfully Unites with Adoptive Mom

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for five months (and during a pandemic). 

That’s how long the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) animal care staff hand-reared a male chimpanzee born in early January before they successfully transitioned his care to an adoptive chimpanzee mom in June.

“It’s a story of great dedication,” said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society. “Nights, weekends and through a pandemic — Detroit Zoo primate staff cared for the baby chimpanzee around the clock. And now it’s a very heartwarming story of a baby who has found a devoted, adoptive chimp mom and family.” 

Zane was born on January 7, 2020, to Chiana, 26, who is also the mother of 6-year-old Zuhura. But soon after Zane’s birth, Chiana became very ill and was unable to care for her newborn. Chiana was treated by veterinarians and recovered, but after she recovered, she showed no interest in caring for her little son. The Detroit Zoo’s primate care staff stepped in to give Zane 24-hour care, which included carrying him constantly, as a mother chimp would, and teaching him to take milk from a bottle. 

Over the five months, Zane lived in the Great Apes of Harambee building instead of a nursery so he could be around the other chimpanzees. During this time, the chimpanzees could see him up close through the mesh of their enclosure. 

“Every day, the other chimpanzees could see us caring for him,” said Carter. “He was always near the other chimps even though they physically could not be together.” 

To prepare Zane for life with the other chimpanzees, the Detroit Zoological Society consulted with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan and other zoos that have integrated rejected infants into social groups. The carefully planned process began with observing potential surrogate moms in the Detroit Zoo’s 11-member chimpanzee troop and their responses to Zane. Mother-daughter duo Trixi, 50, and Tanya, 29, both adult females in the troop, showed interest almost immediately.

Photo by Roy Lewis.

“Trixi is a confident and high-ranking matriarch,” said Carter. “She was a wonderful mother to her daughter Tanya, and when we were considering who could be the best new mother for Zane, she stood out. She was very interested in being near him whenever she could and seemed quite taken with him.”  

From their first physical interaction, it was clear that 5-month-old Zane had found his new adoptive family. 

“Zane approached and hugged Trixi and Tanya the minute he had the chance,” said Carter. “Trixi is Zane’s primary caregiver, while Tanya, who has never had a baby of her own, loves playing with Zane, napping with him, and carrying him for short periods.”

Photo by Roy Lewis.

Carter added, “We’re incredibly proud of our devoted primate staff for doing such an amazing job of caring for Zane and preparing him and his new adoptive family to thrive together.”

Baby Zane is now living with the troop at the Great Apes of Harambee at the Detroit Zoo. The chimpanzees who live at the Detroit Zoo have a fission-fusion dynamic, which means they have the freedom to choose who they want to spend their time with at any given moment. As with all animals at the Detroit Zoo, they also have the choice to go where they please in the habitat, so Zane might not always be visible. The multi-acre indoor-outdoor Great Apes of Harambee habitat is home to 12 chimpanzees.

Photo by Jennifer Harte.

Zane’s birth is the result of a recommendation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, a cooperative population management and conservation program that helps ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically strong captive animal populations. Chimpanzees are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to habitat loss, fragmented populations and illegal wildlife trafficking.

– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Don’t Worry: The Animals at the Detroit Zoo Are Receiving Great Care!

As all of us continue to figure out how to navigate our daily lives during the coronavirus pandemic, people are reaching out to make sure their friends and families are doing OK and not feeling too isolated or overwhelmed.  I’ve had a number of people ask about how the animals at the Detroit Zoo are faring, particularly given the news from the Bronx Zoo about the big cats who tested positive for COVID-19.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) animal care and veterinary teams continue to ensure that the animals at the Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are well cared for and healthy.  We’ve made a lot of changes in our procedures to help prevent the spread of coronavirus among people and animals. Before the first human case was confirmed in Michigan, the DZS was already using masks and gloves and keeping our distance when caring for the animals we considered most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection: the monkeys, lemurs and great apes.  When it was determined that tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo had shown symptoms of COVID-19, we immediately expanded our preventive strategies to include a number of carnivore species.

So far, none of the animals at the Detroit Zoo have shown symptoms to indicate a possible COVID-19 infection.  We are also very happy to hear that the animals at the Bronx Zoo are improving and expected to fully recover.  The DZS stays in touch with zoo and wildlife colleagues across the country and overseas. We are also connected with our One Health partners in Michigan, modifying our animal care protocols as soon as new information becomes available to keep the animals who live here healthy.  Meanwhile, our staff is grateful to be healthy and able to do the important work of caring for these beautiful creatures.  We are monitoring animals carefully, continuing to provide preventative veterinary care such as giving vaccinations, treating to prevent heartworm, and providing care for animals with critical health problems if needed.

As the signs of spring emerge at the Zoo, it’s hard not feel sad that we can’t share the beauty of the daffodils and budding trees with guests.

When the time is right, we very much look forward to seeing all of you at the Detroit Zoo once again.

In the meantime, be well.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Getting a Closer Look Inside Animals: Computed Tomography Comes to the Detroit Zoological Society

As zoo veterinarians, we recognize the importance of identifying animals with health problems as early as possible. Fortunately, the Detroit Zoological Society has exceptional zookeepers who attentively look after each animal in their care and alert the veterinary team whenever they suspect there may be a problem. While subtle changes in demeanor, appetite, fecal and urinary output, and activity level can be key indicators of illness in an animal, most of our patients are very good at hiding their symptoms. In order to get a more comprehensive understanding of an animal’s health, we often rely on diagnostic tests, such as physical examination, bloodwork and cultures for bacteria.

When the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex opened in 2004, the radiology suite was equipped with a state-of-the-art radiology unit designed for use in human hospitals.  With this upgrade, we found that we increasingly relied on diagnostic imaging (radiographs and ultrasound) to make diagnoses and shape our treatment plans.  In fact, we take x-rays during almost every diagnostic examination, on patients as small as dart frogs and as large as bison.

Since the early 2000s, imaging technology has been rapidly advancing, and by upgrading equipment and adding new technologies, the Detroit Zoological Society has stayed on the cutting edge of veterinary care.  This includes having ultrasound probes designed for patients of all shapes and sizes, digital dental radiography and portable x-ray equipment that can go out into the Zoo to image animals who are difficult to move to the hospital. Despite these advancements, we still found it necessary to take patients to off-site facilities at least a few times each year for computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

In late 2019, two very exciting things happened: first, a generous donor named Thomas A. Mackey came forward with an interest in funding a project that would have an immediate impact on animal care and welfare, and, secondly, we became aware of a revolutionary new computed tomography (CT) technology that had been developed in Ann Arbor.  One of the most important features of the new CT technology is that it is portable, and much more affordable and user-friendly than a full-sized CT system. Since our hospital was already equipped with the features and space necessary to install the new system, within just a few months, we were able to bring this exciting new technology to the Zoo.

The new Xoran Portable CT has been in use for only a few months, but it has already had a tremendous impact on patient care at the Detroit Zoo.  Adding CT to our diagnostic toolbox has increased the level of care that we can provide to animals at DZS exponentially. CT works by aiming a narrow beam of x-rays at a patient, while quickly rotating around them. The CT’s computer generates cross-sectional images, or “slices” of the body.  The images contain more detailed information than conventional x-rays.  Once the slices are generated, they can be digitally “stacked” together to form a 3-D image that allows for easier identification and location of basic structures as well as possible tumors or abnormalities.

Here are just a few examples of how this technology is helping us give animals the best possible care:

CASE #1
CT imaging is especially well suited for visualizing the teeth and bones of the jaw. A male aardvark was due for a routine checkup. He had been eating fine, and there was no reason to suspect that he had dental disease. However, aardvarks often have problems with their teeth, so we decided to use the CT machine to scan his head. The images collected showed that he had areas of bone breakdown around the roots of three separate teeth. Treatment was able to be provided before his condition progressed to a point where he was showing signs of discomfort.

Picture1    2

CASE #2
This adult McCord’s box turtle was imaged during a routine examination. The shell covering the body can make radiographs hard to interpret, but CT imaging allows us to see inside of the turtle.

McCord’s box turtle: a. Image of the head and forearms, b. image from the side showing the head and neck folded into the shell, c. 3D reconstruction of the face and front limbs seen in image a.

a. 1  b. 23                                                 c.

CASE #3
CT imaging has also proved helpful for several avian patients. One of the cinereous vultures living at the Zoo had a mass (red star) growing on the toe pictured below. The mass needed to be removed, but in order to plan for surgery, we needed to understand if the mass was superficial or more invasive and involved the soft tissues and bone beneath. CT imaging provided better detail for seeing small changes in the muscles and ligaments surrounding the mass. After evaluating the images, we were able to plan a surgical approach to remove the mass, and any adjacent tissue of concern. The vulture is doing great post-operatively and already back in his home!

Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 10.25.27 AM    Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 10.25.37 AM

CASE #4
We currently have four red pandas living at the Detroit Zoo. The oldest is a 14-year-old female named Ta-Shi. During her recent routine examination, we noticed that one of her large molar teeth appeared darker than normal and was cracked on the surface. Within a few moments, we were set up and ready to collect CT images of her head and teeth. The images showed that the tooth was infected at the root, a problem that was likely causing discomfort. The tooth was also broken, meaning it needed to be removed in several pieces. After the tooth was extracted, a repeat CT showed us conclusively that all of the roots had been completely removed.

1    2

We are extraordinarily grateful to have state-of-the-art equipment at hand to care for animals at the Detroit Zoo. The recent financial gift that made the addition of CT possible has improved our ability to see small changes more clearly, detect problems earlier and fine-tune treatments. With this tool, we will continue to ensure that animals live long, healthy lives and thrive within our care. We cannot say thank you enough to Thomas A. Mackey for his incredibly generous donation!

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

 

 

Keti is Ready to Explore

You heard recently from Dr. Ann Duncan, Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), about a female red panda cub born at the Detroit Zoo on July 6. Keti, the offspring of 4-year-old mother Ash and 3-year-old father Ravi, is being hand-reared. Ash was a young first-time mother, just learning what it meant to take care of a newborn. Using remote cameras, staff observed attempts at good maternal care, but Ash didn’t have all of the skills needed to raise a newborn cub. At two days of age, for Keti’s health and welfare, the decision was made to move her into the hospital nursery; where she spent her first four months being cared for by the DZS’s expert veterinary and animal care staff. 

JH Keti 3

As Keti grew she graduated from incubator, to play pen, and then a section of the nursery.  When old and mobile enough, she was able to go outdoors into a small grassy yard. Red panda mothers will often carry cubs with their mouths up into trees for “climbing school”. To mimic this natural behavior, staff placed Keti up onto the logs and higher branches and added logs and large branches arranged in such a way for her to practice climbing. Keti’s human caregivers stood watch and made sure she was safe while she took her first steps. She soon became confident and enjoyed spending time outside. She seemed to enjoy watching the leaves blow in the wind, and on several occasions took short naps in the grass after a long day of play.

When Keti turned four months old, it was time for her to leave the nursery. She is now building upon the climbing skills she learned in the nursery yard with access to a much larger and more complex space that includes taller trees. This enriching habitat is a great place for a young panda to learn and develop skills she will need for the rest of her life.  The yard is filled with grass, bushes and plenty of trees to climb. Keti is also learning to eat the adult red panda diet which includes specially formulated biscuits and bamboo. She loves to eat the buds and munches on the few leaves remaining on the trees. She was even able to experience her first snow storm in November when Mother Nature surprised us early this season with several inches of fresh fluffy snow.  She jumped through the snow piles and became all snowy herself. Although the snow has melted, Keti loves to go outdoors each day. The animal care staff spends time with her, watching as she explores the higher branches with increased skill and confidence. Soon she will be ready to join Ash, Ravi and “aunt” Ta-Shi in the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest. 

JH Keti

– Betsie Meister is an Associate Curator for Mammals for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Meet Keti, An Adorable Baby Red Panda

Visitors to the Detroit Zoo are always excited when they are able to see baby animals.  Babies are adorable, and are often playful and fun to watch.  Chimpanzee Jane is no exception – she is now 15 months old and can be seen climbing in the trees in her habitat and encouraging the older chimps to play with her. Hana, a female Japanese macaque, is only 5 months old, but is already moving away from her mother and exploring the rocks and branches of her habitat.

It’s not always possible for zoo babies to be cared for by their mothers for various reasons, and occasionally animal care staff have to step in and assist.  When this happens, babies are often cared for in the animal hospital nursery, where they can be given the intensive care they need to grow and thrive.  In the nursery, veterinary and zookeeper staff caregivers can provide round-the-clock feeding and attention.

7-11-19

Over the years, we have had the pleasure of caring for a number of adorable babies, but in my opinion our current nursery resident – a female red panda cub – is arguably the most adorable animal in Detroit Zoo history.  She was born July 6, and weighed 112 grams (around 4 ounces), a good weight for a red panda cub.  While the cub’s mother Ash was pregnant, she allowed us to ultrasound her abdomen while she happily ate treats, so we knew she was pregnant with a single cub that was growing well.  Ash delivered the baby with no problems, and showed the newborn lots of attention, but this was her first pregnancy, and she didn’t have all of the skills needed to raise the cub.  Red panda cubs have been hand-reared at several zoos, including the Detroit Zoo, and we had prepared in advance to care for the panda cub, just in case.  A hand-rearing manual that compiles collective experiences of zoo professionals was used to determine the formula and feeding schedule and help to develop a care plan.

7-11-19 bottle

The cub was placed in an incubator that provided a warm, humidified environment, and was given round-the-clock care.  Her formula was offered in a small bottle with a nipple used for premature human babies, and during her first days she was given only 3-4 milliliters at a time. At each feed, we used a warm, moistened cotton ball to stimulate her to urinate and defecate.  We fed her eight times each day, and by one week she had gained 19 grams.  By two weeks, she only needed to be fed seven times a day and had nearly doubled her birth weight.  When she was a few weeks old, we were concerned that she might have a respiratory infection, but since then she has remained healthy and has continued to grow and become more curious about her environment.  At 5 weeks old, we warmed up the nursery room and moved her to a covered playpen so she could have room to move and play with toys.  A month later she was ready to be moved to an even larger area, and to be given access to climbing structures, bamboo to chew and manipulate, and bowls of formula mixed with adult diet.  She was given the name Keti, meaning “girl” in Nepali, and her caretakers spent time with her each day, encouraging her to climb and explore.

6 weeks

Keti is now more than half the size of an adult red panda, and spends time outside in an area designed to encourage her to play and practice her climbing skills.  She is also becoming acclimated to the colder temperatures.  Eventually she will be moved to a habitat where visitors can watch her continue to grow and get experience climbing and traveling at greater heights.  When proficient, she will be ready to join Ash, dad Ravi and grandma Ta-Shi in the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest.

 

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Quick-Change Veterinary Action from Vultures to Flamingos

During my career as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve learned that anything is possible. In January, I went to South Africa to work on a DZS-supported vulture conservation project, with a plan to do routine health checks and blood testing on 200 vultures, but within a few days, I found myself flying off to another part of the country to help rescue abandoned flamingo chicks.

I was prepared for the vultures, but the flamingos were completely unexpected. Despite the fact that both animals are birds, the list of differences is far longer than the list of similarities, from their diets and method of consumption to their habitats, the way they move and fly, how they build their nests and at what rate they grow.

The Detroit Zoo is home to many of the same species of vultures I was sent to work with at Vulpro, a vulture rescue, rehabilitation and conservation organization in South Africa. During my time with the DZS, I have developed special skills with vultures over the years, and I was ready to do this work. The DZS has a long history of working with vultures and is working with Vulpro to protect these endangered and threatened species. However, after only five days, we received an unusual phone call: A Lesser flamingo breeding colony located at Kamfers Dam, a two-hour flight south in the city of Kimberley, was in serious trouble. The flamingo breeding season was just beginning, but the water in the dam had dried up. This left thousands of young chicks and eggs abandoned by their parents, who had to go elsewhere to find food. VulPro immediately stepped in to help, on the condition that I was willing to oversee the care of the chicks. But I hadn’t prepared for this. Vultures: no problem. Flamingo chicks: not even on my radar. Fortunately, we had just spent the previous five months hand-raising a Chilean flamingo chick at the Detroit Zoo, so I had experiential training. Additionally, I recently devoted two years to studying for a comprehensive exam to become certified as a zoo vet specialist through the American College of Zoological Medicine, so I was prepared for work with nearly any species.

And that’s how our mission suddenly shifted from examining and blood testing 200 African vultures to preparing for the arrival of an unknown number of flamingo chicks of uncertain ages and in varying states of health…as quickly as possible. I needed to formulate the chick feed – a blend of shrimp, fish, eggs, rice cereal and vitamins, determine feeding protocols and schedules, develop a biosecurity protocol, prepare antibiotic and fluid dosages for sick chicks, set temperature and humidity requirements and help the amazing VulPro staff construct appropriate housing for flamingo chicks weighing about 2 ounces when they typically work with 18-pound vultures.

In the field of zoo medicine, you quickly learn who to call when you need help, and in this case, that was Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate bird curator, and Cher Fajardo, the DZS’s bird supervisor. They’ve both gained expertise and amassed a lot of resources during many years raising flamingo chicks. They gave me the exact information I needed, and with the help of VulPro staff, volunteers, and other conservation partners, we were prepared. Within 24 hours, I was on a very small plane flying over South Africa to Kimberley to triage, treat and transport 165 tiny little flamingo chicks.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.