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: Educating Future Vets

Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Earlier this month, the Detroit Zoological Society’s veterinary team had the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of seventh graders, as we helped them explore their interest in veterinary medicine. This was the second summer that we’ve worked with our talented education department to offer this very special Summer Safari Camp experience. During this particular weeklong camp, the students learn about zoo medicine in general, hear stories about the babies we’ve cared for in our nursery, and practice placing a bandage on a limb (of a stuffed animal). They also spend some time in our laboratory to see how blood, urine, feces and other samples can provide valuable information about an individual’s health.

Summer Safari Vets 3To put into practice what they learned during camp, we challenged the students with a weeklong (pretend) case involving a female otter. The students met with a zookeeper to gather a complete medical history, and then helped develop a diagnostic plan, interpreted bloodwork and radiographs and ultimately made the decision that the otter needed surgery. To prepare for “surgery”, the students practiced their surgical and suturing skills on bananas. On the last day of camp, we invited the students to the surgical suite in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. There, we showed them how they would prepare themselves and their patient for surgery and how to carefully handle surgical instruments. After our student surgeons made a delicate abdominal incision on our stuffed otter “patients”, each student was able to explore the abdomen to find a coin foreign body. Then, each student placed several sutures in both the deep “tissues” and “skin”, just like real surgeons!! And of course, all of the otters made a full recovery after their efforts.

It was fun to work with the students Summer Safari Vets 2throughout the week. They were very attentive and engaged during camp, and it was very rewarding to watch their curiosity and skills grow during their time at camp. Even if these students decide that veterinary medicine is not the career for them, I am confident that their interest in medicine and in providing the best care for animals will be lasting.

– Dr. Ann Duncan

Veterinary Care: Return of the Osprey

Dr. Ann Duncan is the Chief Veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

In 1998, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) Ospreystarted providing veterinary assistance as part of a collaborative effort to reintroduce ospreys, a fish-eating raptor, to southeastern Michigan. The Department of Natural Resources, Kensington Metropark, the DZS and DTE worked together to help this majestic species return to the area after being impacted by use of the pesticide DDT. Ospreys had historically been found in our area, but there were no known nesting pairs in southeast Michigan when the project was initiated.

Between 1998 and 2007, osprey chicks were brought down from northern Michigan, raised in elevated platforms on lakes and released at Kensington Metropark, Berry County and Stony Creek Metropark. All chicks were banded so that they could be identified by a network of volunteers and biologists devoted to their monitoring and recovery. At the end of the summer, these chicks then migrated to their winter grounds in South America and, after reaching maturity returned to the place in southeastern Michigan where they fledged, or began flying and feeding on their own. The first chick returned in 2002, and numbers have increased steadily since that time.

This year, there are more than 30 nesting pairs in southeast Michigan, most choosing to nest in cell towers. There is now a self-sustaining population of ospreys in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula. Beginning last year, funding was secured to fit a few of the chicks with backpack transmitters that send a GPS signal and allow the birds’ migration patterns to be tracked.

Ospreys - Banding at KensingtonThe DZS was initially involved in helping to feed and care for the chicks in the towers; we spent time monitoring the chicks in their nests and providing food, nutritional supplements and veterinary care. Now that we are no longer moving osprey chicks from northern Michigan, our involvement is limited to conducting exams and collecting blood samples for health monitoring and gender determination of the chicks produced by our now resident ospreys.

Over the years, the chicks have generally been incredibly healthy and robust. A few have been slightly dehydrated and some have had parasites, but none have had serious medical issues. It’s been incredibly rewarding to be a part of this successful reintroduction program. The biologists and volunteers involved in this effort are talented and dedicated to the success of this wonderful native Michigan bird.

– Dr. Ann Duncan


Veterinary Care: Martens in Manistee

Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

One of my favorite things to do is assist with work in the field. It is very rewarding to be able to use our veterinary expertise to help animals succeed in their natural habitat. This month, I and Dr. Wynona Shellabarger each had the opportunity to spend a few days near Manistee in northern Michigan, assisting with health assessments of free-ranging martens.

The American pine marten (Martes Americana) is an important carnivore species that was originally found throughout most of our state. Habitat loss and overhunting led marten populations to drop to zero by the early 1900s. In 1986, the U.S. Forest Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources reintroduced 36 martens into the Manistee National Forest. Early monitoring of the released animals indicated that the population was not expanding as expected. Professor Paul Keenlance from Grand Valley State University has been leading research efforts to better understand this group’s habitat range and preferences, breeding success, and the distribution of their young, known as kits.

His research team is also working to better understand what they eat and to determine the degree of genetic diversity. The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) participation is in support of the work Dr. Maria Spriggs from Busch Gardens is leading to assess the overall health of the Ann Duncan - Martenpopulation. To conduct this research, the martens are captured in what are known as Hav-A-Heart traps – which are humane traps that close in such a way that they do not harm the animal. The traps are set carefully to ensure that martens have a nice snug spot. We cover each trap with pine needles and leaves for warmth and nest building, and put large pieces of bark on top to protect them from rain and snow. We also place meat bait and grapes in each trap so that they have a snack and a source of water.

Our visit this spring marked our fifth trip to the field site. A typical day in the field starts at 7 a.m. because we want to make sure that any martens that have been captured do not have to wait long. Each trap is marked on a map with GPS coordinates and we drive from one trap to the next. Empty traps are restocked with bait and grapes as needed.

Ann Duncan - martenIf we catch a marten, things get very exciting. Each marten is given anesthetic gas with a face mask to allow an examination. During the procedure, we measure several parameters to ensure that anesthesia is safe and smooth. We measure body temperature to make sure martens are not too cold or hot. Next, we collect a body weight, perform a thorough physical exam, check the teeth to determine age and check for ticks and fleas. We collect urine, feces and hair samples, and collect blood for an overall health panel and to determine exposure to viruses. Lastly, each marten is fitted with a GPS collar. The DZS provides GPS collars that are able to provide a location every 15 minutes to an hour for many months.

During a typical week, we usually catch between five and 10 martens. Each capture expands our understanding of these amazing creatures. The information that has been gathered so far has lead to changes in the management of the forest in which they live, and will be used to inform decisions about marten protection in the future.

– Dr. Ann Duncan

Veterinary Care: A Visit from the Equine Dentist

Dr. Ann Duncan is the Chief Veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

At the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, we often rely on outside medical specialists to help our veterinary team provide the best care to the animals at the Detroit Zoo. We have regular visits from veterinary ophthalmologists, veterinary and human cardiologists, veterinary surgeons and dentists.

This week, we had a visit from Dr. Tom Johnson, an equine dentist who delivers excellent dental care to horse patients throughout Lower Michigan and beyond. He has been invited to lecture and share his knowledge all over the world, and has developed special tools to help make his work more effective and precise. Dr. Johnson and I first met while we were classmates at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and we have stayed in touch ever since. I first asked for his assistance in 1998 when our geriatric Shetland pony, Snowflake, started losing weight. During her exam, we noticed that she had developed an abscessed tooth. After we removed the tooth and floated – that is, filed down the sharp edges on – her remaining teeth, she gained weight and lived for many more years. We realized during this exam that Dr. Johnson had the expertise and tools to provide better dental care than we are able to provide. Ever since then, we’ve called on Dr. Johnson to examine our rescued thoroughbred race horses and miniature donkeys. He has also helped us address dental issues in Przewalski’s horses and guanacos.

Dr. Johnson has a specially designed trailer that he brings on grounds when he examines our domestic horses. Each patient is given a sedative, and then walked into the trailer. Once inside the trailer, Dr. Johnson has access to the tools he needs to complete an exam, including a head-mounted light source and dental scalers. This year, we are pleased that horses Trio and Buster had no issues of concern and required only routine trimming and cleaning.

Miniature donkeys are known to have dental problems, so we were pleased that Giovanni also looked very good, though Knick-Knack had a molar that had broken in half, allowing food to collect at the center. Dr. Johnson worked for over an hour to carefully loosen the tooth, and was able to successfully remove it.

Before today, there were no signs that Knick-Knack had a dental problem. She was eating all of her food and showing no signs of discomfort. Left untreated, her tooth may have become abscessed, which would have been painful for her. We are very glad to have caught this problem early – we know that providing timely medical care improves animals’ health and welfare.

– Ann Duncan

Veterinary Care: Rockhopper Exams

Dr. Ann Duncan is the Chief Veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

This week, the veterinary staff at the Rockhopper PenguinDetroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex performed examinations on the 11 oldest rockhopper penguins living in the Penguinarium.  As with other animals, penguins can develop age-related health problems as they get older. We know that it’s important to identify health problems early, and this begins with a thorough physical examination.

Veterinary staff members regularly visit the Penguinarium to observe and evaluate the 73 penguins of four species – rockhopper, macaroni, king and gentoo – and during these visits, we may check on an individual if we notice a squinting eye or a mild lameness, or examine and collect blood from a penguin with a decreased appetite.

For the exams this week, the 11 oldest rockhopper penguins were transported one at a time to the hospital for a thorough examination. Once there, they were administered anesthetic gases through a mask until they were sleepy, and then were laid on a towel on our exam table. Using anesthesia allows our veterinary team to very carefully examine each penguin from the tip of their beak to the bottoms of their toes. While they are relaxed, we can feel for lumps under the feathers and arthritis in the joints, carefully inspect their mouth and throat and listen to their heart and lungs. We can also palpate their abdomens while they are relaxed, which is very tricky when they are awake. Probably the biggest advantage is that we can take carefully positioned radiographs of their entire bodies to check for organ enlargement, respiratory problems, arthritis and other changes. We also collect blood during these exams, which is a very valuable tool for screening for illness.

Kat - Rockhopper Penguin

The oldest penguin that we examined this week was Kat, a 43-year-old female rockhopper penguin.  She is the oldest living rockhopper penguin in a zoo, and the first of her kind to successfully hatch in a North American zoo – having hatched at the Detroit Zoo in 1972.  We are happy to say that she still appears to be very healthy!

– Dr. Ann Duncan