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: 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.

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.

Veterinary Care: Exotic Animal Hematology

The Detroit Zoological Society has hosted students from Macomb Community College’s veterinary technician program for the past seven years to teach them about exotic animal hematology. These second-year students spend an evening in the lab at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, learning about the variance in blood cells in many exotic animal species and understanding why zoo medicine is a very specialized field.

Hematology is a medical term referring to all things related to blood – a major part of diagnosing illness and disease comes from the information we learn by examining a patient’s blood. The special thing about working in the veterinary hospital at the Detroit Zoo is that we are responsible for the healthcare of all 230 species of animals that reside here. Working with such a large variety of species can be fun but it can also be daunting when you realize just how much information we actually need to know.

Part of the laboratory testing performed on the samples that we collect involves smearing a small drop of blood onto a microscope slide, applying a special stain and examining the blood smear under a microscope. We then perform a count of 100 different white blood cells and analyze all of the cells for abnormalities. We also look for things like hemoparasites, which are parasites that can be found in the blood.

Mammal blood is different from bird, reptile, amphibian and fish blood in that mammal red blood cells do not contain a nucleus while the other classes of animals’ red blood cells do. Aside from that major difference, the types of white blood cells in mammals differ from non-mammals along with variations in cells from species to species. For example, penguin blood cells look different than vulture blood cells. In a human laboratory, this same testing is performed by an automated CBC (complete blood count) machine, which automatically counts the cells and reports the values. In a zoo setting, we do not have the same capabilities. Because of the nucleated red blood cells found in many of our patients, these cells cannot be counted by a lab machine and must be counted by hand. Being able to recognize normal and abnormal cells in so many species of animals comes with a lot of practice and many years of experience.

I have continued to practice and hone my hematology skills since becoming a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society more than 10 years ago. I look forward to continuing our relationship with Macomb Community College’s veterinary technician program and being able to share my specialized hematology knowledge with more local veterinary technician students in the future.

– Erica Campbell is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society, operating out of the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Veterinary Care: A Horse of a Different Color

For more than 20 years, Jeff Powers has assisted the Detroit Zoological Society’s veterinary team in providing the best possible care for the hoofstock living at the Detroit Zoo. Jeff is a certified farrier – a craftsman specially trained to trim and balance the feet of horses, and to place horseshoes, if necessary.  All domestic horses need regular trimming to remove overgrowth and prevent the development of hoof problems.

When Jeff first started coming to the Zoo, his visits were limited to the Barn. We could see right away that he has a special way with animals and is a talented farrier. At that time, a beautiful Shetland pony named Snowflake lived in our care. During an especially lush late summer, she developed inflammation in both front hooves, a condition called laminitis. We treated her with medications to decrease inflammation and discomfort, and called Jeff to see if there was anything else that could be done. He brought his specially outfitted truck, complete with a forge and anvil used to heat and shape metal. He used his blacksmith skills to design a custom set of small, “heart bar” shoes to help relieve Snowflake’s discomfort and allow her hooves to heal. She was immediately more comfortable and made a full recovery.

Since then, Jeff has joined us during exams under anesthesia to trim the feet of both zebras and Przewalski’s horses. We’ve also enlisted his assistance with a few animals that are not equids, including Dozier, a belted Galloway steer. Perhaps our grandest adventure was trimming the hooves of Raspberry, a male reticulated giraffe. When Raspberry was 10 years old, he developed overgrowth of the tips of both front feet. This changed the way that he carried his weight (a whopping 2,250 pounds!). We spent over a year training Raspberry, and were able to teach him to put each foot on a block so we could use nippers to remove the extra hoof. Despite this success, we could see that Raspberry needed a full hoof trim to get his hooves back into proper alignment. The size and height of an adult male giraffe makes anesthetic procedures very challenging. We developed a meticulous plan to orchestrate all of the necessary tasks – the veterinary staff would make sure that the anesthesia kept Raspberry safe and still while Jeff led efforts to trim the hooves. During the procedure, the vet staff was mainly focused on administering and monitoring anesthesia and supporting Raspberry’s head and neck, but we could see the flurry of activity at Raspberry’s feet. I’m fairly certain it was the fastest hoof trim in the history of hoof trims. In no time at all, Raspberry had four perfectly symmetrical, healthy feet.

I am grateful that Jeff has been able to provide his services to the Detroit Zoological Society and our team at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex over the years. He has been a steadfast asset to us, and is a trusted and familiar face to both the animal care staff and the horses in the Barn. With regular visits every four to six weeks year-round, it’s my estimation that he has trimmed the feet of the donkeys Knick Knack and Giovanni about 200 times each!! We make a good team, and I look forward to years of continued collaboration.

– 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: What’s in Your Wallet?

Among the items in my wallet is an identification card that says I am a certified Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) technician. As a zoo veterinarian, this certification is very important to me – and to the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – because it means that in the event of an environmental emergency anywhere in the world, I can be deployed to help. In addition to myself, two other DZS veterinarians, a veterinary technician and six animal care staff members carry these cards and have this expertise.

HAZWOPER training is required for anyone who may be working in situations with hazardous materials. A big example of this is oil, and all the other toxic chemicals involved in an oil spill. If an oil spill were to occur, and if there are animals affected, they will need care and treatment – which puts the people caring for them in harm’s way. HAZWOPER training is not only about the animals themselves – that is our area of expertise as trained animal health professionals – it is about all the other dangers humans could face while trying to save them.

As part of this training, we learn how to protect ourselves from all the things that could be harmful at a hazardous waste cleanup site. In addition to being exposed to many kinds of toxic chemicals and vapors that can be inhaled, we may also have to protect ourselves from heatstroke or frostbite. This training is required by the government in order for us to lend our expertise to help the animals because if one of us were to become ill or injured, it would only add to the challenges of an already difficult situation. It’s similar to the airplane safety measure of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping a child put on theirs – if those of us trying to help don’t keep ourselves safe first, it puts the animals at even greater risk.

HAZWOPER training is labor and time intensive and requires skilled instructors and specific materials. If an emergency were to happen today, one cannot wait weeks or months to undergo the training, because the animals need help now. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – the largest marine oil spill in history – many veterinarians and other professionals trained in animal care wanted to help, but without HAZWOPER training, the government wouldn’t allow it. An estimated 2.2 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf every day for nearly three months. This oil spill affected 400 different species of wildlife, including 8,000 birds, 1,100 sea turtles and 109 mammals. This is exactly why we stay ready – we undergo an eight-hour refresher course annually in order to maintain our certification, which many of us do in our free time, outside of work hours. And because of this, one of the DZS’s veterinary technicians was able to travel to New Orleans that summer and assist with Deepwater recovery efforts.

Thankfully, we haven’t needed to respond to an environmental disaster in the past two years, and frankly, we’d like to keep it that way. But if the worst happens tomorrow and animals need our help, we’ll be on the next plane.

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

Learn more about HAZWOPER training.