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.

Animal Welfare: Educational Partnerships that Improve Animal Well-Being

In a number of instances, the work we do to enhance the welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo is a result of collaboration and partnerships. One such partnership is with Madonna University. Students enrolled in a class that is part of the humane education curriculum join us each semester to undertake projects that will benefit the animals.

We work with animal care staff to select projects suited to each species and the students are responsible for learning about that species to better understand the impact that their project will have on the animals’ welfare. The students are divided into three groups and each group is assigned a particular project. The groups work with mentors from the Life Sciences division and over the course of several weeks, complete their project. On the last day, all of the students get the chance to see the results of all of the projects in order to gain more appreciation of the various ways in which we can positively impact animals living in the care of humans.

Over the course of the last few years, the Madonna University students have participated in projects benefiting warthogs, amphibians, giraffes, gorillas, reptiles, rhinos and birds living in the Free-Flight Aviary, to name a few. This year, the students will help us to modify habitats for giant anteaters, flamingos and kangaroos and wallabies in the Australian Outback Adventure. This will involve the creation of nesting areas for the flamingos, as well as planting shrubs for the anteaters and kangaroos in order to add more complexity to their environments and create additional areas of shade. These types of modifications are important to ensure that animals encounter novelty and have more opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

This wonderful partnership is an example of how the Detroit Zoo provides educational and inspirational opportunities for students and is always finding ways to design engaging habitats for the animals.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.