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: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

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