Veterinary Care: Suiting up as a Whooping Crane

My job as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) often has its surprises; for example, one time I discovered that some species of frog turn from bright green to dark green as they become anesthestized. Typically the surprises are the interesting and sometimes unbelievable things I learn about animals. But sometimes what I do during the day is not what I thought I’d be doing when I woke up that morning – like wearing a full-size whooping crane costume and spending a day in a field with some lost birds.

A few weeks ago, the DZS bird department was contacted by the International Crane Foundation, which is based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. They’d been tracking four yearling whooping cranes that were raised at the foundation and were newbies to the whole migration thing. The cranes had made their way to the Midwest from Florida but were thought to have been blown off course on their way back to Wisconsin by a storm that came across Lake Michigan. It was their first year migrating back on their own – who could blame them?

After locating the birds near a cornfield in Michigan, the staff at the Crane Foundation needed a veterinarian’s health certificate stating that the cranes were healthy enough to travel back to Wisconsin. They reached out to the DZS. I jumped in a car with our curator and associate curator of birds and headed about an hour north of the Detroit Zoo into an area where houses were few and far between and the landscape was mostly farm fields. There, we met up with the staff from the Crane Foundation and witnessed four beautiful juvenile cranes come in for a landing just on the opposite side of the pond from us. Unfortunately, “just on the opposite side of the pond” was about 1,500 feet away, and a determination of good health cannot be made from that distance. The next thing I knew, I was handed a pair of binoculars … and a crane costume. Yes; a crane costume!

You see, whooping cranes are highly endangered, and would in fact be extinct in North America if it weren’t for the captive rearing program headed up by the International Crane Foundation. The goal of the program is to create a sustainable wild population of whooping cranes, and this only works if the crane chicks are reared by “cranes”. Thus, human “parents” will dress up in crane costumes – the human body is covered in white, like the white feathering of the crane, and the human hand holds a replica of a crane head, complete with a functional beak, which teaches the chicks how to “be” a crane.

So on this particular day, I found myself meandering across a cornfield in rural Michigan, stopping to “graze” every few minutes, preen my “feathers” and survey my surroundings alongside my fellow “crane”, one of the Crane Foundation staff members. Not long after we started our way across the field, the four juveniles began to notice us and they took interest. Gradually, they made their way over, two moving through the shallow pond while the other two came around the pond’s perimeter. In less than 30 minutes, I was face to face – or rather, beak to beak – with four amazing whooping cranes. Their beautiful yellow eyes sized me up as I looked for any signs of illness, but I found none. After I’d visited with each crane and felt assured of their health, I simply enjoyed the awe — and surprise — of unexpectedly having the opportunity to spend a few brief moments so close to these incredible birds.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

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: Ultrasound Exams for Frogs

Spring is in the air, and as I hike and bike the trails in southeast Michigan I find myself excited to be immersed in the lovely chorus of spring peepers and tree frogs as they prepare for this year’s breeding season. This also means it won’t be long until it is amphibian breeding season at the Detroit Zoo! Each year, the veterinary team works closely with our amphibian staff to provide support for our amphibian breeding programs. Our curators and keepers set up special breeding areas and adjust the temperature, light cycles, humidity and water access to simulate conditions in the wild and encourage natural breeding. They even set up simulated rainfall and play tape-recorded sounds of breeding calls collected from the wild.

Even with all of this, some of our endangered amphibians need a little more help to breed successfully.   At the Detroit Zoo, we have over a decade of experience administering special hormones to Wyoming toads and Puerto Rican crested toads to help with breeding. We have been very successful with these programs; two years ago the amphibian staff sent 3,914 Wyoming toad tadpoles to Wyoming and last year they sent 22,571 Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles to Puerto Rico for release into their native habitat. This is important work and we are proud to be able to help.

As zoo husbandry staff and amphibian reproductive experts have gained expertise, it has become clear that not all amphibians respond the same way to changes in their environment and established hormone protocols. Two years ago, we purchased a high frequency ultrasound probe, and we have found that we can monitor the appearance of the ovaries and follicles as they develop and mature within female frogs and toads. This provides a very powerful tool for understanding the impact of the husbandry and hormone treatments that we apply, and will allow us to establish assisted reproduction methods for other endangered species.

This season we have some exciting things planned, and have started the early work to check the females we are hoping to breed. Last week, we performed ultrasound exams on our three female giant waxy tree frogs, and were able to see that they are all developing large, follicle-filled ovaries. Based on the appearance of the follicles, we think that they will be ready to breed in the next few weeks to a month.

This week, we will be conducting ultrasound exams on our endangered Mississippi gopher frog females. Once we see their degree of follicle development, we’ll be able to plan a hormone and husbandry strategy for this year’s breeding season. Hopefully we will have exciting news to share in the coming months!

– 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: Gorillas in the Congo

Last month, I was able to experience something that was truly a dream come true. For my entire career, I’ve longed to travel to the home country of a species I care for at the Detroit Zoo, and contribute directly to the health and welfare of that species. In October, I travelled to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), which is located in the Kasugho region of North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

GRACE is the world’s only facility that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders. Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only 5,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas being cared for at GRACE, ranging from 3-14 years of age. At GRACE, a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care, including a diet that includes local fruits and vegetation training for important animal management behaviors and treatment for medical problems. Caretakers also monitor the group while they enjoy a 24-acre forest, which is the largest gorilla enclosure in the world. The Detroit Zoo entered into partnership with GRACE in 2014, and as the Chair of GRACE’s Board, Detroit Zoological Society CEO and Executive Director Ron Kagan has provided and facilitated important support to the project. Most recently, he secured funding for a new night house enclosure that is currently under construction.

I traveled to the Congo with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, including a veterinarian who led the team, a veterinary technician and a husbandry expert. Our goal for the eight days at GRACE was to perform examinations on 12 of the 14 gorillas – this has never been done before anywhere in the world, and it was important that we do all we could during these exams to learn about the health problems they may face.

The objectives were to conduct physical wellness exams to make sure the gorillas are healthy and to build capacity within the GRACE staff. Most orphaned gorillas suffer from malnutrition and are in poor shape when they first come into human care, and examinations under anesthesia allow a thorough exam to be performed and blood to be collected for testing. During the procedures we worked closely with staff members to demonstrate techniques and discuss observations. The team also transported several diagnostic tools to the site for the exams. A veterinarian from Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda brought a portable X-ray machine and took images of several animals that have had orthopedic injuries in the past. The veterinarian at Disney was able to secure the loan of a portable dental X-ray unit that we used to take radiographs of the teeth to ensure that normal adult teeth are forming below the visible baby teeth. A recently donated ultrasound machine was used to perform cardiac exams on the gorillas as well. With all of these diagnostics being performed, it was especially important that we work efficiently as a team – we discussed our exam plans and responsibilities before each procedure, and worked very well together. During the afternoons, we provided lectures to the staff at GRACE, and shared information about dental health, heart disease and training for important behaviors that allow care to be provided. The staff is very appreciative of opportunities for learning and improvement, and was a very attentive and interactive audience.

In all, my trip to GRACE was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. The people at GRACE were very welcoming and gracious and greeted us with a ceremony that included a traditional song and dance prepared just for our team. We were able to observe the gorillas in their forest enclosure, which is the closest I’ve come to seeing them in the wild, and a very special experience. It was wonderful to work with a group of people so committed to the care of these amazing animals. Everyone had to work very hard to allow these health checks to happen, and at the end of week, we celebrated with a party and shared the very American dessert “s’mores” with the staff. I am very thankful to the Detroit Zoological Society for providing me with the opportunity to travel to the Congo, and honored to be able to serve the people and gorillas of GRACE.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.