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.

Detroit Zoological Society Leads Task Force to Evaluate Risks Facing Honduran Amphibians

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently asked the Detroit Zoological Society to host an Amphibian Red List workshop in Honduras. The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive information source for understanding extinction risk for animals. To develop this list, a rigorous assessment process is conducted using all known data on each species. Based on what threats the animals are facing, e.g., habitat decline, population decline and habitat fragmentation, the animals are placed into one of eight categories:

  • Extinct – None left
  • Extinct in the Wild – None are left in the wild, but captive groups exist
  • Critically Endangered – These species are often labeled “probably extinct” and are in imminent danger of extinction
  • Endangered – These species are at high risk of extinction
  • Vulnerable – These species are at moderate risk of extinction
  • Near Threatened – These species are not currently at risk of extinction but are anticipated to be at risk in the near future
  • Least Concern – These species are not currently at risk of extinction
  • Data Deficient – Not enough information

It’s important to note that animals in the Least Concern category are still of concern and should not be ignored, but the threats facing animals in the other categories are currently causing more pressures. The Red List rating scale is often referred to as a “barometer of life”, with each category indicating the amount of pressure on a species pushing it closer toward extinction.

Hosting a Red Listing workshop for the amphibians in Honduras was an exciting and extremely intense process. Of all the countries in Central America, Honduras has the highest number of amphibians that are endemic – or found only in that country, which makes it a very important area for biodiversity. Unfortunately, Honduras doesn’t receive a lot of conservation attention and many of these amphibians are facing the threat of extinction. The Detroit Zoological Society was eager to help this underappreciated hot spot for biodiversity move forward toward understanding the conservation needs of its unique amphibians.

This IUCN assessment of amphibians was the first assessment of all amphibian species in Honduras for more than 15 years, and since the last assessment, 22 new amphibian species were discovered in the country. To assess the animals, the local Honduran amphibian experts were brought together at Universidad Zamarano outside Tegucigulpa for the workshop. With the help of myself, the IUCN facilitators, and two other amphibian experts from the U.S., we all sat down to share data on the 151 species of amphibians in Honduras and determine their IUCN categories. Holding this assessment in country was critical for the participation of these local experts who had intimate knowledge of the species, and who were able to discuss future steps in protecting species of critical need.

We learned a lot through this workshop. Although there were more species assessed in 2019 than in 2002, the overall number of species that are Extinct, Critically Endangered and Endangered all increased. This is especially concerning in this unique area of biodiversity. Because the Red List allows us to assess the specific threats facing the animals, we were able to discuss potential conservation actions needed. At the end of the workshop, a meeting was held with officials from Instituto de Conservaticion Forestal, the governmental institution similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in order to discuss the results of the assessments and what steps could be taken next. Additionally, we hosted a symposium at the Universidad Nacional Automona de Honduras in Tegucigalpa in order to raise awareness about the IUCN workshop and the state of amphibians in the country. More than 150 individuals attended the symposium, including government officials, researchers and students. It was encouraging to see the excitement within the country, especially in so many young students, for the preservation of amphibians. We will continue to evaluate what we’ve learned from this process and determine the next course of action to save these critical species.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

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.

Notes from the Field: Seabird Research Reveals Impact of Ice Decline in Antarctica

Where to begin!? I recently returned from a six-week expedition to Antarctica, living and working at the U.S. Palmer Research Station to study the populations of penguins and other seabirds. I’m still in awe of the whole experience.

Palmer Station is the base for a long-term ecological research program, where scientists are studying all aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem. The fieldwork conducted there through the Polar Oceans Research Group has been ongoing for 40 years, resulting in the collection of a lot of data. While scientists have determined that the climate is severely warming and affecting all regions in the world, the greatest effects are seen in Antarctica. Declining sea ice levels are negatively impacting many species of wildlife that depend on it.

Sea ice is crucial to the Antarctic ecosystem, and its loss can have profound effects. One example of this can be found by examining a small crustacean called krill. This animal feeds on the algae that grows underneath the ice and is a primary staple in the diets of many species, including penguins. Declining sea ice means fewer krill, which means less food for the fish that eat them and as a result, a depleted food supply for penguins and the rest of the food chain.

Sea ice losses can occur from both warmer air above it and warmer water below, and increased air and water temperatures means more snow. This makes it difficult for penguins to build their nests and when the snow melts, the nests are at risk of flooding and these birds may find their eggs floating in puddles.

Upon my arrival at Palmer Station, we began conducting a breeding chronology study with two colonies of Adélie penguins on two local islands. We selected a few nests to observe throughout the season – our observations included periods of birds laying their eggs, the chicks hatching, and the chicks heading off on their own. These nests were monitored daily for predation and for the exact dates of chicks hatching. We also chose nests to be assessed for body condition and egg morphometric data. We took measurements and weights of birds and eggs to obtain a sampling data size of a larger population.

As part of another aspect of the program, we counted the number of individual birds in colonies of Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. One island was home to 6,000 gentoo penguins! Boy, did my thumb hurt that day from using a clicker counter. Unfortunately, most Adélie colonies were in decline from recent years’ data while gentoo numbers were increasing. One of the reasons for this is Adélie penguins rely more on sea ice than gentoos for feeding.

The sea bird program not only involves the study of penguins, but also every other species of bird surrounding Palmer Station, including giant petrels, brown and south polar skuas and kelp gulls. These species were monitored in various ways including mark-recapture, leg band re-sights and nest observation. We even deployed satellite transmitters on southern giant petrels – the data from the first transmitter we analyzed showed that the bird had traveled 1,500 miles in just 10 days!

In addition to bird surveying, we were asked to conduct a marine mammal census by identifying species, behaviors and group size. As a seal keeper, seeing various seal species in the wild was just beyond anything I could have imagined – Antarctica is home to crabeater seals, weddell seals, ross seals, elephant seals, fur seals and the infamous – and dangerous – leopard seals.

The Detroit Zoological Society has worked with the Polar Oceans Research Group for a number of years – its founder, the world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, was a consultant on the design of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. This is the second time a member of our animal care team has been invited to take part in this rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.