‘Otterly’ Amazing: Learning to Care for the Detroit Zoo’s Newest Marine Mammals

It’s the season of sea otters at the Detroit Zoo! Over the coming weeks, Dr. Ann Duncan, director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society, will be sharing updates about two of the Zoo’s newest inhabitants, Ollie and Monte. Read on to learn more about some of our favorite marine mammals!

A year ago, Detroit Zoological Society (DSZ) animal care staff was busy renovating a habitat at the Arctic Ring of Life to become home for two rehabilitated sea otters, female Ollie and male Monte.

As the DZS had not cared for sea otters in the past, the veterinary staff was busy learning about the animals’ unique anatomical and physiological features and medical needs so we could provide the very best care. We reached out to veterinary colleagues experienced in sea otter medicine and were able to take part in online learning opportunities. We also gathered and read the literature describing typical sea otter medical problems and treatment. 

Sea otters Monte and Ollie moved together to the Detroit Zoo in June 2021.

Sea otters have several interesting adaptations, and caring for them is quite different from caring for similar animals, like North American river otters. Sea otters are in the water almost all the time, and when at the surface, they float on their backs. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters don’t have fat under the skin for insulation. They instead rely on a unique hair coat and high metabolic rate. They have the thickest hair coat of any mammal — more than a million hairs per square inch! The hairs have tiny scales that interlock to form a dense, felt-like barrier that traps air and keeps the skin from becoming wet. This special coat is maintained by fastidious grooming, and when sea otters are not foraging or sleeping, you can usually observe them using their forepaws, flippers and tongues to care for their coat. Without a healthy coat, sea otters will lose heat to the water and cannot survive. When drawing blood, performing surgery or doing ultrasound, we avoid clipping any hair so that there won’t be a window for heat loss. Since the arrival of Monte and Ollie, we have regularly taken images of their hair coats using a thermal camera to look for any areas of irregular heat loss. So far, they have been perfect!

Thermal image of hair coat – Ollie, left side March 10, 2022.

The metabolic rate of sea otters is eight times higher than the standard metabolic rate of similarly-sized terrestrial mammals, and they forage as often as every four hours and eat about 20 to 25 percent of their body weight in food each day. To meet these needs, we feed our sea otters at the zoo six times each day. Digestion of food generates heat and is an important strategy for maintaining body temperature while in cold ocean waters. We analyze the nutrient and energy contents of all the food items we feed to our sea otters and weigh them frequently to make sure they are meeting these high energy demands. 

The amount of food the sea otters eat in one day.

Sea otter skin is very loose, and they have two loose pouches of skin near their arm pits that they can use for storing and carrying food and other items. 

Nasal turbinates increase the surface area for warming inhaled air as it enters sea otters’ bodies.

Sea otters don’t have the best vision, but their eyes are uniquely adapted to allow them to see well both above and below water. Their ability to accommodate in this way is three times higher than reported in any other mammal.  Sea otters close their ears and nostrils when diving. Their noses contain a complex labyrinth of turbinates that serves to increase the surface area for warming inhaled air as it enters the body and allows otters to have an excellent sense of smell. 

Sea otters’ teeth are uniquely designed to scrape food out of the shells of their prey.

Males are larger than females, weighing up to 100 pounds, compared to 75 pounds for females. Their lower incisor teeth are chisel shaped and protrude so they can be used to scrape food out of the shells of their prey. Their molars and premolars are wide and flat, perfectly shaped for crushing hard foods like clams and sea urchins.     

Male sea otter Monte showing off his impressive incisors.

My favorite sea otter adaptation is that they are cute! Sure, from a veterinary perspective, they are interesting, but they are also absolutely adorable. It’s impossible to watch them swim and interact without smiling, and it’s easy to want to do everything possible to help them thrive. All sea otters in human care have a medical condition that jeopardizes their ability to survive in the wild. I am proud of the Detroit Zoo for making a commitment to support the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded or injured sea otters by providing a long-term home for those who cannot be released. While we currently only care for Monte and Ollie, we have the space and resources to offer safe refuge for additional animals when needed in the future. 

Female Ollie was found stranded in Santa Cruz, California in 2010 when she was approximately two weeks old.

Stay tuned for my next blog, where I’ll describe a recent trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for sea otter medicine boot camp. There, I was trained firsthand how to restrain and perform anesthesia on these beautiful and unique animals.

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

March of the Penguins: A Tough Egg to Crack

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society is bringing you not one, but three blog posts centered around our favorite flippered friends — the penguins who live at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. (read the first blog post, here) The facility, which had been closed since 2019 due to waterproofing issues, reopened in February, and we can’t wait to share with you all the stories we have been saving over the past two and a half years. 

Next in our March of the Penguins series, learn how animal care staff saved the life of a hatching macaroni penguin.

We’ve all heard stories from friends and family of difficult birthing events, sometimes resulting from a baby that is positioned incorrectly in the birth canal, often called a breech delivery. You may not realize that something similar can happen during the hatching of a bird. 

Fertilized eggs contain all of the nutrients needed to support a chick during development. As the chick grows, an air pocket forms at one end of the egg. For a chick to survive, it must be positioned so that it can push its beak into this air pocket just before it’s time to begin hatching. Some developing chicks are rotated or positioned incorrectly so that they can’t reach this air pocket – this means that the chick can only survive if given assistance. Over the years, bird and veterinary staffs have worked together to assist the hatching of several developing eggs.

Looking inside of a penguin egg.

The bird staff monitors eggs under development very meticulously. They take daily weights to ensure eggs steadily lose weight, a sign that the air pocket, (otherwise known as an air cell) is growing larger.  The staff also shines a special bright light through the eggs, a procedure called candling. Candling allows you to see an outline of the developing chick and air cell. Once incubation nears the end, radiographs can also be taken to visualize the skeleton of the chick and ensure the embryo is positioned normally.

In 2021, the Detroit Zoo had a single fertile macaroni penguin egg. On day 37 of a 37-day incubation period, radiographs were taken to see if the chick was able to hatch normally. The radiographs showed the chick was malpositioned in a way that can be fatal — the chick was rotated, and the beak would not be able to reach the air cell. We could feel the chick moving, and it seemed strong. After discussing our findings, we decided to begin the process of assisting the chick to hatch. 

Dr. Ann Duncan helping the chick hatch.

The shell was cleaned gently, and a Dremel tool was used to make a small opening. A sterile tool was then used to gradually make the opening larger until the position of the chick’s beak could be confirmed.  We then made a very small hole in the membrane overlying the chick’s beak. This allowed the chick to begin breathing air, so that it can stay strong and continue hatching. Chick embryos develop with the yolk sac outside of their abdomen, and as they near hatching, the yolk sac is gradually enveloped inside of the belly to provide nutrients for the first few days. Through the opening in the shell, we could see that the chick needed more time to absorb the yolk sac. We set the chick up in a warm, humid environment, and checked on it frequently. We also began offering one or two drops of water every few hours. 

She has arrived!

The next morning, we were very happy to see that the yolk sac had been mostly absorbed. We removed more of the shell to expose the belly, cleaned the skin over the belly and placed a suture to hold things in place. We then gently coaxed the chick out of the shell. In all, the hatching process took about 24 hours, which mimics the timeline of normal hatching. The macaroni chick is doing well, and is currently learning to swim in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. She was named Betty and as you can see is full of character. We are very happy to have been given the opportunity to get her started on a long, healthy life.   

Betty in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

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

Welcoming the Great Ape Heart Project with Open Arms!

This photo of chimpanzees Zuhura and Akira was taken by Roy Lewis.

Earlier this month, we announced that the Great Ape Heart Project has officially moved to the Detroit Zoo!

Since 2010, the GAHP has dedicated time to understanding and treating heart disease in great apes. Much like it is for humans, heart disease is the leading cause of death observed among great apes in zoos.

“The Great Ape Heart Project was created to address a specific need in the zoological community,” said Dr. Hayley W. Murphy, director emeritus of the GAHP and executive director/CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). “It’s critical to investigate, diagnose and treat heart disease among great apes. The information that comes from this international, multi-institutional project saves lives around the world.”

This photo of gorillas Kongo and Pende was taken by Roy Lewis.

Originally based at Zoo Atlanta, this collaborative project was founded to create a centralized database that analyzes cardiac data, generates reports and coordinates cardiac-related research.

“For more than a decade, the project has maintained a hub for researchers that includes more than 90% of the individual great apes in institutions that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The project allows participants to compare and contrast data from nearly 80 institutions,” said Dr. Marietta Danforth, director of the GAHP. “Prior to this move, Detroit was like a second home for us because we had so many fruitful meetings here at the Zoo. It’s exciting to have it be our home base now.”

The GAHP received the prestigious 2020 Research Award from the AZA. The award recognizes achievements in advancing scientific research among accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S.

In honor of Heart Month, we are selling GAHP shirts here: bonfire.com/GAHP2022. All proceeds will help prevent, diagnose and treat heart disease in great apes. This year’s design features two chimpanzees who live at the Detroit Zoo, Zuhura and Akira

Pip Pip Hooray for a Little Piping Plover

Let’s open this blog post with a little fun. We recently held a gender reveal and Erie, the piping plover under human care at the Detroit Zoo, is a GIRL! Not only is Erie a girl, but she is also the granddaughter of the Illinois pair from Montrose Beach, Monty and Rose.

Erie’s background:

For the first time in 83 years, piping plovers were seen nesting in Ohio. Birds Nellie and Nish quickly became a famous, feathered pair when they decided to make Maumee Bay State Park their temporary home. Of note, Nish (the male) is the offspring of Monty and Rose, the infamous piping plover pair in Chicago (about whom a book was written). On July 1, all four of their eggs hatched. The chicks – Erie, Ottawa, Maumee and Kickapoo – were given some serious security detail. A large part of the beach was cordoned off until early August to protect the young birds.

People with a passion for plovers watched this Great Lakes critically endangered species closely. Black Swamp Bird Observatory volunteers and other bird watchers gathered for weeks with binoculars, cameras and notebooks. Daily updates were posted to Nellie & Nish: The Maumee Bay Piping Plovers Facebook page.

Photo taken by Plover Patrol Volunteer Ron Schramm and posted on the Nellie & Nish Facebook page.

On August 18, hearts were broken when a volunteer found Kickapoo dead. It is believed the bird was killed by another wild animal. The next day, more difficult news was shared when it was noticed in photographs that Erie had suffered an injury to her cloaca. The cloaca is the opening for a bird’s digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts. It’s used to expel feces and lay eggs. An injured cloaca could cause chronic medical problems, as well as make it difficult for Erie to lay eggs when she is nesting.

After much discussion with wildlife agencies and piping plover experts, the decision was made to capture Erie and transport her to the Toledo Zoo for treatment. During this time, siblings Ottawa and Maumee did what piping plovers do and migrated south for the winter. It is believed that had Erie left with the others, she would likely not have survived.

Photo of Erie taken by Vince Capozziello and posted on the Nellie & Nish Facebook page.

After nearly two weeks of treatment, Erie’s injury was healing well and she was returned to the beach. Everyone expected her to head south like Nellie, Nish, Ottawa and Maumee already had – but in mid-October she was still at Maumee Bay State Park.

That’s where the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) comes in. At the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) request, Erie was captured and transferred to the Detroit Zoo, where we are providing medical care and a private, comfortable home for her over the winter. Our experience caring for piping plover chicks as part of the federal recovery program’s salvage captive rearing program makes the DZS a perfect fit for helping Erie. Every year, piping plover eggs that are abandoned are collected, incubated and hatched on the DZS campus and chicks are later released back to various Michigan shorelines. This program has been very successful; the Great Lakes population of piping plovers has increased from 17 breeding females in 1986 to 74 breeding females in 2021.

In the last two months, we’ve been able to watch Erie’s personality really develop. She is laid back and loves all kinds of bugs! Staff at the DZS will assess Erie’s health over the winter and release her next summer with a group of captive-reared chicks. If it is believed that her injury could present risk to her, such as causing problems when she tries to lay eggs, she may be deemed non-releasable by the USFWS and we will help to find a permanent home for her in a zoo that houses piping plovers.

Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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.

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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.