Understanding Cardiac Health in Great Apes

Cardiovascular disease isn’t just the leading cause of death for humans, it is also a health issue faced by great apes. These majestic creatures – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – share 98 percent of human DNA. As is the case with humans, it is apparent that we need to investigate and understand the cardiac health of these animals.

Fifteen years ago, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) began to form in order to address this responsibility – two zoo veterinarians, a human cardiologist and a veterinary epidemiologist put their heads together around the topic. Early on, they recognized the critical need for a multidisciplinary approach to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease in these special animals. In the years since, they have enlisted the help of a number of passionate and hard-working medical experts and scientists – the team now consists of zoo veterinarians, human and veterinary cardiologists, ultrasonographers, human and veterinary pathologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, geneticists and zookeepers. They use clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in the understanding and treatment of cardiac disease in all of the ape species, with the ultimate goal of reducing mortality and improving the health and welfare of captive great apes.

Members of this project recently convened at the Detroit Zoo for what was the largest working group meeting the GAHP has held to date.

Much progress has been made over the years – with generous funding from Zoo Atlanta and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the GAHP has been able to hire a project manager to move their initiatives forward and coordinate the development of an extensive database to store the information needed to unravel this complicated health issue. A website has been developed, containing all of the information needed for veterinarians to understand how to contribute to the project and provide feedback about their patients. Additionally, normal cardiac parameters for gorillas and chimps have been established, which is an important step toward early recognition and treatment. Human and veterinary pathologists have worked together to improve tissue collection techniques and agree upon the terminology used to discuss findings. Together, they’ve been able to identify aspects of heart disease that are shared between great apes and humans, and this has helped inform future directions for research.

This team has demonstrated that a small group of very committed people can make tremendous strides toward improving the health and well-being of animals in our care. At the Detroit Zoo, we’ve been at the forefront of research, using implantable loop recorders to understand the impact of cardiac arrhythmia on heart disease in chimpanzees and gorillas.

A thousand dollars in proceeds from our recent Pool for Primates fundraising event was donated to the GAHP by the Detroit chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. The Detroit Zoological Society is committed to contributing to this important work and ensuring that great apes worldwide live longer, healthier lives.

– 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: The Detroit Zoo in Winter

The days have grown shorter and the temperatures colder over the last few weeks. During these chilly months of the year, I am often asked the question, “Does the zoo close during the winter?” The answer is “No!”, but things do change for both the people and the animals during the winter. The Detroit Zoo is open to visitors every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and all of the animals at the Zoo remain here year-round and need daily care. We have at least one veterinarian and one veterinary technician at the Zoo every day, including holidays. In fact, the winter remains a very busy time for the veterinary staff.

Many of the animals are able to enjoy the cooler temperatures of winter. Some animals that experience much warmer temperatures in the wild are able to grow heavier hair coats and acclimate to a Michigan winter. But even for these, enjoying time outside is always a choice – we keep the doors open so the animals can come inside whenever they choose. We also modify diets during the winter months. Some animals need more calories to keep themselves warm, and hoofstock and other herbivorous animals need access to more hay and browse to replace the pasture and plants they enjoy during the summer. For extra fun, we bring the snow indoors for some of the animals to enjoy. The chimpanzees especially love to play in snow mounds that we bring indoors.

During the winter, there are often fewer visitors in the Zoo, and this has some advantages. Moving a 275-pound tiger to the hospital for radiographs and an examination is a challenging task at any time of the year. We use a large Sprinter van to transport our patients, and a second van to transport the people needed to lift and move them into the hospital. When possible, we always prefer to move large patients around the Zoo on days when we have fewer guests. There are also patients that prefer cooler temperatures. Over the last two years, we have been transporting penguins one at a time to the hospital for examinations under anesthesia. So far, we’ve examined more than 50 penguins! The habitat at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is kept at a brisk 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so the winter months are a perfect time of year to move penguins to the hospital and keep them comfortable during the process.

Winter is a great time to visit the Zoo. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center offers a new experience every time I visit, and some days you can enjoy moments of near solitude with the penguins. The red pandas and Japanese macaques are especially active at this time of year, and a fresh snowfall transforms the zoo into a truly beautiful place.

You can also experience the magic of winter during our evening Wild Lights event, featuring 5 million lights and activities for guests of all ages. We all have more than four months of winter to enjoy/endure. I find the best way to get through the winter is to get outside and enjoy it! So, I’ve rummaged through my office closet for my winter hat and gloves, started wearing my long underwear, and I am embracing the winter season! Hope to see you at the Zoo!

– 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: My, What Big Teeth You Have!

Dental care is a very important component of maintaining the health and welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo. Many of the animals in our care live longer than they would in the wild, and we need to ensure that they maintain healthy, strong teeth throughout their lifespans.

Some of our patients are cooperative; for example, the polar bears and chimpanzees have been trained to open their mouths wide for a quick visual exam, and the seals allow us to brush their teeth daily to reduce tartar build up. But it’s not always that easy – our patients all have very different mouths, and some teeth are easier to see than others. During every health check, we make sure to do a thorough dental exam.

 

Most of our carnivores and reptiles have mouths that open wide and teeth that are easy to examine. Aardvarks, kangaroos and pigs are examples of animals that have elongated, deep mouths that are very hard to visualize, but we use a variety of tools to get the job done. A laryngoscope with a very long blade or small endoscope can be used to see in the dark, tight spaces inside the mouth, such as with a Meishan pig. Pigs can develop dental problems as they age, so it’s important to check each tooth and treat any potential problems early.

Our patients also have different kinds and shapes of teeth. The teeth of carnivores and herbivores are shaped differently, and their structure can vary as well. We look up the dental formula (how many incisors, premolars and molars a species has) and anatomy of the teeth before exams, and we have developed a new dental exam form to help us identify the teeth and record any problems we find. For example, beavers have front incisors that grow continuously, and we check their teeth frequently for overgrowth.

Some of our patients have very, very large teeth, like Kisa, a 13-year-old female Amur tiger. During Kisa’s most recent health check, we were able to see that there was swelling around her lower left canine tooth. We scheduled an exam with our visiting veterinary dentist, Dr. Ben Colmery. He made a small incision along the side of the tooth and found an area where the enamel had eroded away. This type of enamel resorption is common in older domestic cats, and has been seen in our geriatric zoo patients as well. If left untreated, serious problems can develop that can make it necessary to extract the tooth. Dr. Colmery smoothed the lesion and applied a special paste to help stimulate healing. We also scaled and polished all of her teeth to remove tartar and plaque.

Our goal in the animal health department is provide the best possible care to all of the wonderful animals that live at the Detroit Zoo. We work to understand the kinds of health problems found in zoo animals, and to prevent these problems whenever possible. Finding dental disease and other health problems early allows us to be proactive in our efforts to maintain excellent health and welfare.

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

Veterinary Care: Get Ready to Run Wild

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Run Wild for the Detroit Zoo, and we anticipate it will be bigger and better than ever. This is a fun, family-friendly fundraising event that encourages our friends and Members to enjoy a healthy dose of exercise – through either a 5K, 10K, Too Wild combo or Fun Walk. Run Wild is also a great way to support the health of the animals at the Zoo.

The race started as a unique collaboration between the Southeastern Michigan Veterinary Medical Association and the Detroit Zoological Society. During the first 10 years, proceeds from Run Wild were put toward a $1 million endowment dedicated to supporting the purchase of equipment for the Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. Each year, the revenue from this endowment and proceeds from Run Wild are used to purchase and upgrade our diagnostic and treatment capabilities. This funding has allowed us to maintain cutting-edge health technologies in the Zoo. Over the years, we have purchased some very important equipment, including a two-headed teaching microscope, digital radiology, an ultrasound machine and a portable blood analyzer.

Last year we purchased a hand-held portable dental X-ray unit. Dental care is a very important component of our efforts to keep animals as healthy as possible. The new unit looks like a futuristic ray gun, and delivers a narrow beam of X-ray energy to a very small plate designed to be put inside the mouth of our patients. With this technology, we are able to take very detailed images of individual teeth or areas of concern, and to find dental problems early, before they become serious. The unit is small enough that it can easily be transported to our patients throughout the Zoo’s 125-acre grounds. We have used it to image teeth from wolverines to guanacos, lions and other animal patients of all shapes and sizes. We have even used it to take images of the bellies of frogs and toads!

Last year we also purchased a new patient monitoring tool called an EMMA (Emergency Mainstream Analyzer). This tiny piece of equipment provides us with very valuable information during anesthetic procedures. With each exhalation, the EMMA measures the amount of CO2 in the breath. Any change in body position or physiology that subtly compromises an animal’s ability to use oxygen is immediately known using this sensitive equipment. We use it for all of our procedures now, and find it invaluable.

I know this may all may sound very technical, but providing health care to the animals at the Zoo is a big job. The team at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex is very grateful to have the latest and greatest equipment to provide skilled and compassionate care. Join us for Run Wild, and know that you are supporting great care at your Zoo.

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

Editor’s Note: New this year, all Run Wild participants will receive finisher medals! These medals feature a penguin to celebrate the Polk Penguin Conservation Center as well as an American flag ribbon to honor the anniversary of September 11. In addition to finisher medals, all participants will receive a reusable Detroit Zoo water bottle at the finish line. These bottles can be refilled at any of the free hydration stations on Zoo grounds, and there will be additional refilling stations available on race day. This is all part of our Green Journey to create a more sustainable future; last year we eliminated the sale of disposable water bottles at Detroit Zoo concessions, an effort that has kept 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream.

Veterinary Care: The Evolution of Zoo Vet Resources

I’ve been a practicing zoo veterinarian for 25 years; the last 20 of which have been spent here at the Detroit Zoo. Things have changed so much over the years, especially as it relates to the resources that are available to zoo and wildlife veterinarians as well as the technology we use to share information.

My first “real” job as a zoo veterinarian was at the Potawatomi Zoo in Indiana. I was the zoo’s first full-time veterinarian, and had to build the veterinary programs from scratch. I was a brand-new vet, full of ideas, and the only one at the zoo. It was a fun challenge and I had a lot to learn.

It was a very different time. When I first started I didn’t have a computer that was my own – I shared a very old model with our animal staff that did not have an internet connection. There was no email available back then; in order to reach out to someone for feedback or advice, you had to talk to them on a phone (that was connected to the wall!) The internet was not yet flush with information about zoo medicine, and most publications had to be rooted out of university libraries or actually found on your bookshelf.

So I made a lot of phone calls, talked to people at meetings, eventually sent a lot of emails, and connected with people on “listserves”. Some of my most valuable connections were within a group called the Midwest Regional Zoo Vets. This group started gathering soon after I started working in Indiana, and I very happily joined their ranks. It was a small group at first; five to seven people meeting to talk about anesthesia challenges and vaccine programs and sharing a spaghetti dinner made together in the hospital kitchen. I was the newest, youngest veterinarian in the group and found it invaluable to have this group as a resource.

Things have changed over the years. Electronic resources and connections make it much easier to keep the latest research at our fingertips and obtain feedback from other experts in our field. Despite all these resources, it’s still incredibly valuable to gather together and talk about the challenges we face. I’m happy to report that the Midwest Regional Zoo Vet group is still going strong after more than 23 years, and for most of these I’ve been the organizer and chairperson. We meet twice each year, rotating our locations between a dozen zoos in Ohio and the surrounding states. We have been able to maintain the intimacy of those first, small, cozy meetings, even though our last meeting was 30 members strong.

We talk about all kinds of things, from parasites to grief management, nutrition to radiology. We also often share clinical cases and invite outside experts to join in on the discussion. We talk about the cases that stump us, share our amazing success stories, and discuss our failures. There is no question that can’t be asked, no problem too trivial. I always learn so much more than I expect at our meetings – it’s fantastic! Zoo veterinarians are some of the most generous, dedicated people I know, and bringing my colleagues together to help provide the best possible medical care to animals is extremely rewarding. I’m proud to be part of a profession that feels like family!

– 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: New Penguin Facility is a Veterinarian’s Dream Come True

Anyone who has visited the Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium probably knows that it is impossible to escape the charm of the penguin. I have been caring for penguins at the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 years, and can attest to this firsthand. I find them to be exceptionally interesting and charismatic animals, and even after all these years, I enjoy every visit to the Penguinarium immensely. More than a few penguins have stolen my heart over the years.

Generally speaking, penguins are strong, feisty birds that rarely develop health problems. In recent years, the penguin flock at the Detroit Zoo has become older, and we have treated penguins for a variety of age-related medical problems. In the course of this work, we realized that there were gaps in the scientific literature concerning penguin health. As a result, we focused our efforts on gaining a better understanding of some of the most important conditions, including cataracts, melanoma and bumblefoot. Our animal health and life sciences departments and the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare all share the same long-term goal of better understanding how we can provide an environment that allows penguins to thrive and maintain the best possible health and welfare.

The new Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a penguin veterinarian’s dream come true. We feel so fortunate to have been able to use our expanded knowledge of penguin health to inform the design of their new home. Every aspect of the habitat is designed to meet their unique needs:

  • The lighting in the new habitat provides a much wider spectrum of wavelengths, with more ultraviolet light and improved nighttime lighting in the red wavelength ranges. The lighting intensity capacity is greatly increased, and can be adjusted to mimic seasonal variation.
  • The flooring has been designed to enhance foot health and prevent development of bumblefoot lesions. In some places, the floor is coated with a resinous material to provide cushioning, and in other areas the flooring has variable rocky textures, mimicking conditions seen in Antarctica.
  • The penguins will have an enormous pool for swimming, and a swim channel that will allow them to circumnavigate the entire habitat. This will result in increased activity levels and opportunities for natural porpoising and diving behaviors and will help them avoid weight gain.
  • The water filtration system is state-of-art, and will include an ozonation capacity and improved water filtration.
  • The air quality will be significantly improved, providing 100% air exchange and improved air filtering.
  • The nesting areas are designed to be easy to clean and allow better chick-rearing success.
  • We will also have more places to temporarily hold animals needing special attention during illness or quarantine, and fold-down stainless steel exam tables for veterinary exams and procedures.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, we have been able to provide treatment and loving care to a number of very special penguin patients and have had a lot of success: We’ve helped chicks who have gotten off to a rough start, restored vision to a number of geriatric penguins with cataracts and significantly reduced the incidence of bumblefoot. Despite these successes, our greatest measure of achievement is in the medical problem that is avoided altogether. We constantly strive to prevent issues from developing, through carefully designed diets, vaccination and parasite prophylaxis, disease surveillance and excellent care. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a big stride forward toward this goal, and we thank the community for their support of this exciting project. Thank you for helping us provide the best possible care to our penguin family.

– 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 – Antarctica Brings a New Respect for Penguins

I have a new respect for penguins. As one of the veterinarians at the Detroit Zoo, I know a lot about these aquatic birds – how to collect blood from a penguin, how to anesthetize a penguin, what types of medications I can give to a penguin, and how the inside of a penguin should look on a radiograph (X-ray image). In fact, the day before I left for an expedition to Antarctica, my veterinary ophthalmology colleagues and I restored vision to two of our rockhopper penguins by performing surgery to remove their cataracts. However, after visiting these amazing little birds on their home turf and seeing how they live their daily lives, I realize that I had no idea how a penguin actually “works”.

Antarctic penguins live incredibly harsh lives, but they make it look simple. They appear to be perfectly at home in 29°F salt water. That is not a misprint. The salt causes the water to freeze at a lower temperature than fresh water, so they actually swim daily in water than would be frozen if it were in the Great Lakes. We saw penguins everywhere in the water, swimming like bullets and porpoising with ease at high speeds. Penguins, in fact, live most of their lives at sea. Their only use for land is during a relatively brief nesting, breeding and molting season. Our visit to Antarctica took place during the austral summer and, at this time, the penguins are on land for breeding. Although their stout little bodies and short legs are much more suited to swimming, they manage to navigate rocks of all shapes and sizes, sometimes climbing steep and treacherous cliffs to get to their chicks. Aside from a few relatively flat beaches, we rarely saw penguins walking on level surfaces. They do fall occasionally, sometime frequently, but they get up every time and continue on their mission.

Late in the breeding season – when we arrived – penguin parents spend hours hunting for food in the water and then return to feed their chicks, who are at this point nearly the same size as their parents.  After the parents have hunted all day – making difficult and treacherous climbs up the rocks – their large, pudgy chicks seem much more greedy than grateful for all of the parents’ hard work and dedication.  After feeding all that they have to their chicks, the adults head directly back down the treacherous rocky cliffs and back into sub-freezing cold water to start over again.

These amazing birds live such a hard life, and they make it make it look easy. Or maybe not easy, but they manage it. Because it’s what they do. It’s how they “work”. Now that I’m back at the Zoo working with our penguins, I have so much more awe and respect for these amazing creatures, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness the workings of wild penguins firsthand.

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