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.

Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Scientists Set Sail on Seabird Study

This is Part II of a series about a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands by the Detroit Zoological Society to understand the threats facing populations of wild penguins and seabirds. For Part I, click here.

Conducting scientific research in the Falkland Islands can be logistically challenging. Located 300 miles to the east off the southern tip of South America, this remote territory consists of two main islands and several hundred smaller islands dotting the South Atlantic. Some of these islands have rocky cliffs at the ocean’s edge. Others are completely inaccessible.

With this said, the Falkland Islands provide critical habitats for several species of penguins, seabirds and other wildlife, and such fieldwork is necessary to preserve these populations and understand the risks they face. Threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism in the area.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was asked by a partner organization called Falklands Conservation to develop a project that would explore the impacts of infectious disease, pollution and tourism on these populations. After months of preparation, a DZS veterinary team embarked on the mission.

Traveling to the Falklands from Detroit is a 50-hour journey. First, you fly to Atlanta and then to Santiago, Chile. The next day, you fly to Punta Arenas, Chile and then continue on to Stanley, the largest city in the Falklands. Stanley has a population of roughly 2,000 people, and about 900 people live elsewhere in the islands. By comparison, there are approximately 450,000 sheep spread over the islands, which amounts to more than 150 sheep per human. There is also an estimated 800 miles of coastline in the Falklands, which is home to four species of penguins and numerous other seabirds.

The DZS’s goal was to take blood and feather samples from penguins living in different locations within the Falkland Islands. Some had experienced the presence of humans, industrial shipping and oil activity and others were far removed from these potential impacts. The team also set out to examine two penguin species, one that tends to forage closer to land and one that travels far out to sea.

The research team’s home base for the expedition was a 55-foot sailboat. Each morning, the team would pack supplies into backpacks, get dropped off on an island and hike to various penguin colonies to collect the samples over an eight-hour period. One day, the team was set up on a beach near a gentoo colony and the next was spent on rocky cliff near a rockhopper colony.

Each penguin was handled for less than 10 minutes, during which time the team conducted a physical exam, took swabs to test for viruses and bacteria, collected blood and used scissors to trim a few feathers for toxicology testing. Afterward, each of the penguins went right back to their colonies and continued their regular activities of grooming and socializing.

In the evenings, our researchers took over every surface of the boat and spent three or four hours centrifuging the blood, making slides and getting samples ready for storage in liquid nitrogen tanks for preservation until our return to Michigan.

In all, the team examined 95 penguins. Our hope is that we can better understand the current health status of these penguins as well as the impacts disease and exposure to environmental toxins and humans may have on wildlife. Ultimately, measures could be taken in this region to ensure important marine habitats – and the wildlife who rely on them – are protected.

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

Notes from the Field: Detroit Zoological Society Conducts Comprehensive Study on Health and Welfare of Wild Penguins

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has a long history of leadership in the areas of penguin conservation and penguin health. In recent years, we have been collaborating with Falklands Conservation (FC), an organization working to understand the threats impacting wild penguin and sea bird populations in the Falkland Islands.

In early 2018, the DZS was asked to develop a project that would explore the impacts of infectious disease, pollution and tourism on these populations. When monitoring birds as part of their study, the folks with FC often noticed sick penguins, but they didn’t have the resources locally to investigate the causes of this illness. The DZS has incredible expertise in the areas of penguin health, handling, behavior and welfare. We also practice compassionate conservation, so we knew we could develop field techniques that would minimize the amount of handling required as well as the stress it may cause the animals.

And so began the most comprehensive study of the health and welfare of a wild population of animals the DZS has ever undertaken.

During the next eight months, we reached out to dozens of veterinarians, virologists, bacteriologists, toxicologists, welfare scientists and conservationists who were working on projects with similar goals in wild penguins, though not quite as comprehensive as ours. These conversations provided us with valuable information that helped inform our own project. We also discovered that over the past 5-10 years, testing has advanced in ways that would allow many unanswered questions to be investigated. With the right partners and execution, we had an opportunity to do some important work, and to tackle some of the goals that had been recently established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s leader in the conservation of plants and animals.

To meet the project goals, we would be sending samples to four different laboratories and gathering as much information as possible within the scope of our resources. We would focus on new testing capabilities and our strengths as leaders in animal welfare. For example, at the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center, we’ve discovered that a particular blood test is often more useful for identifying penguins fighting infection or toxicological problems than the more traditional ones used for other species. We also planned to use a test that looks for the DNA of germs causing disease, which prior research did not include and would strengthen the science considerably.

Lastly, we are fortunate to have developed an on-site endocrinology lab at the Detroit Zoo, specializing in the science of animal welfare. Our team at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics has incorporated cutting-edge testing to measure the potential impacts of disease and exposure to environmental toxins and humans by measuring stress hormones and damage to DNA, which has been linked to chronic stress.

Once we had our “to do” list, it was time to plan the logistics. The Falkland Islands are extremely remote; therefore, conducting this research was going to have its challenges. We would be collecting and storing samples on beaches and rock ledges, far from the hospital setting we are used to at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Stay tuned for more details about this incredible project in an upcoming blog entry.

– Dr. Ann Duncan, Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Veterinary Care: Repairing a Warthog’s Fractured Tusk

The most distinctive features of warthogs are the gently curving tusks that protrude from either side of their face. Each has two pairs of tusks, which are actually constantly growing canine teeth, with the upper pair usually much longer than the lower.

During a recent routine examination of a 3-year-old female warthog named Sansa (yes, after Game of Thrones) by veterinary staff at the Detroit Zoological Society’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, we noticed that she had fractured one of her lower tusks below the gumline. We couldn’t see the tooth, so we used a metal dental instrument to locate the end of the tooth and then took a radiograph. We could tell that the fracture had occurred very recently and were concerned that the open end of the tooth might allow bacteria to enter. If an infection reaches the base of the tooth, extraction may become necessary, and we wanted to do whatever we could to avoid this.

The size and shape of a warthog’s tusk is similar to the canine tooth of a domestic horse, and we knew that our equine dentist frequently treats his patients for broken canines. We asked Dr. Tom Johnson to come to the Detroit Zoo to help us repair her tooth. Her follow-up exam was less than three weeks since her first exam and already the tooth had grown enough that it was visible at the gumline, which made treatment much easier than expected. We started by cleaning the surface of the tooth and could see that the opening was very small, making infection less likely to occur.

The procedure was very much like having a cavity filled: Dr. Johnson used a dental drill to cup out the area around the opening and then used dental materials to seal and fill the tooth. The filling will remain protected within this recessed area while the tooth continues to grow and be used. The radiographs show that there is very good blood supply to the tooth and we expect that Sansa will be able to heal completely now that the tooth has been repaired. To be certain, we will examine her again in a year, and will take another radiograph to check for any concerns.

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

Veterinary Care: Baby Jane’s Prenatal Check-ups

While newborn photos of a female baby chimpanzee have gone viral on our social media accounts, they weren’t the first images taken of little Jane. During mom Abby’s 33-week pregnancy, Detroit Zoological Society staff performed eight ultrasounds of the baby, who is named after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall.

Staff works diligently with the great apes who live at the Detroit Zoo to develop behaviors that allow us to monitor their health. The gorillas and chimpanzees open their mouths to let us look at their teeth, show us their hands and feet and lean against the mesh to allow the administration of vaccines. Most of the chimpanzees will press their chests toward the mesh so we can take images of their hearts with an ultrasound probe.  Abby quickly learned to position herself and allow us to put the probe on her belly so that we could monitor her growing fetus. After a few practice sessions, we invited an OB (obstetrical) ultrasound technician to the Zoo to take the standard measurements collected during pregnancy in human women.

Abby was a cooperative patient and always appeared excited to see us. She would prop herself on a ledge and eat peanuts during each exam, allowing the peanut shells to pile up on her growing belly.  There are limits to the ways we can position the probe, and we were not always able to get every measurement at every visit. In the early months, we were able to measure the length of the fetus from the crown to the rump; as the baby grew, we measured the circumference of the head and abdomen and length of the long bones, including the femur and humerus. We were also able to see the position of the fetus and measure the heart rate. With each exam, we added data to our growth charts, and were pleased to see steady growth and development. We also became increasingly confident that the baby was a girl.

Abby is the third chimpanzee mom that has allowed us to conduct obstetrical ultrasounds, and since 2008 we have been able to collect measurements from three pregnancies, including youngsters Ajua and Akira. Using these measurements and data from two scientific publications, we were able to make a solid prediction of Abby’s due date – July 14, the date of the first annual World Chimpanzee Day! As this date approached, animal care staff began round-the-clock checks to look for signs of labor. Just three days before the due date, we performed a final ultrasound exam. We were pleased to see that the baby was still growing according to expectations. We could see her face and watch her open and close her mouth and wiggle her arms and legs. Most importantly, we could see that the baby had a strong heartbeat and was positioned with her head down, which is the correct position for a normal delivery.

Anyone who has anticipated the delivery of a baby knows that due dates are not an exact science. But Abby delivered her baby at 12:01 a.m. on July 14, one minute into the day predicted as her due date, and the delivery was without complication. Being able to monitor babies during pregnancy allows us to prepare for any issues that might arise, and to intervene if needed. Abby is a wonderful mom, and is taking good care of Jane. She seemed excited to show off her new baby to the other chimpanzees, and held her against the window for everyone to see. We look forward to watching her grow and thrive in her habitat at the Great Apes of Harambee.

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