Diagnostic imaging (radiography) is one of many diagnostic tools used on a daily basis at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Veterinary Hospital. X rays enable veterinarians to see what is going on inside our Zoo patients; now and again, the diagnosis is obvious.
Many of the Zoo’s mammals and birds spend time foraging and exploring their environment. Items such as sticks and leaves can provide entertainment as well as the raw materials for bedding and nests. Other items such as glass and metal can be very harmful to our Zoo animals. Metal can contain elements such as zinc and lead, which can be toxic to animals if not removed. Some aquatic birds fall victim to this after ingesting a coin from a “wishing well-like” pond. Others find the shining objects in terrestrial areas of their exhibits; our Madagascar crested ibis was one such bird.
The long slender beak of the Madagascar crested ibis is perfectly built for probing into soil and shrubs in search of insects and other tasty morsels. Keepers noticed, however, that one of our ibis wasn’t eating. Furthermore, its behavior had changed—a red flag for an animal caretaker. The bird was brought to the Zoo’s Jennings Veterinary Hospital for evaluation. A further evaluation, including radiographs, was indicated based on the veterinary exam and keeper observations.
Most of the nearly 4,000 radiographs taken at the Jennings Veterinary Hospital each year are facilitated with anesthesia. Proper safety, handling, and positioning of the patient is imperative when taking radiographs; our ibis was no exception. Using a gas anesthetic, she was anesthetized and positioned for two radiographic views of her whole body. Once viewed by the veterinarian, the problem was clear; the ibis had ingested metal. The next challenge would be how to safely remove the potentially toxic material from the patient. The decision was to use another important piece of equipment: the flexible endoscope.
The endoscope (a flexible stick with a fiberoptic camera attached) was threaded down the ibis’ throat until it reached the bird’s stomach or ventriculus. A grabbing basket was then threaded down the endoscope and was used to retrieve the metal objects. Once the metal was removed, a follow-up radiograph was taken to ensure the procedure was successful. The three pieces of metal removed included two metal dowel fragments as well as a stainless steel bolt. It is likely that these items attributed to the Madagascar crested ibis’ stomachache!
Animal care staff go to great lengths to ensure that potentially harmful items such as metal are not present in animal exhibits, but occasionally a small bolt gets left behind. If this happens, however, the veterinary staff at the Zoos’ Jennings Veterinary Hospital is prepared to use diagnostic radiology and other technologies to evaluate and safely remove any items from our special animal residents.
Steve Culver is a registered veterinary technician at the San Diego Zoo.