Zoo Hospital: The Importance of Poop

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How do our intrepid hospital keepers obtain a fecal sample from a Costa's hummingbird?

Hey, Hospital Keepers! Guess what’s coming into quarantine?

Those are always fun words to hear, adding to the surprise element, never-the-same-day-twice, kind-of-like-Christmas aspect of my job. It is always exciting to meet new animals. And I take pride in the fact that, as hospital keepers, we get a “sneak peek” at every animal before it makes its debut at the San Diego Zoo. Whenever there is a new animal that comes into our collection, it must be isolated, monitored, and tested at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for a designated quarantine period. This required time is usually 30 days but can sometimes be longer, depending on the circumstances.

There are so many things that go on during this time that I could share with you. But what I’m going to write about this time is poop.

Yes, you read that right. While an animal is in quarantine, three fecal samples (one week apart) are collected and submitted for evaluation. A small sample speaks volumes! We need to make sure our new additions are not harboring any “bugs” that might compromise their health or be shared with their future exhibit mates or keepers. Fecal collection is a fairly noninvasive process for keepers and animals, just another part of our daily cleaning routine: pick it up, put it in a cup, and send it to the lab. It has to be clean—not on the dirt or in a puddle—and the fresher the better. Yes, you read that right, too! For birds, we sometimes place a large sheet of wax paper under their favorite perch or poop spot to capture the sometimes illusive, minuscule droppings.

You might be thinking, “How does one get a decent fecal sample from a hummingbird?” Good question! We have mastered the technique of draping a sheet of wax paper under the hummingbird’s cage and securing all four corners with a paper clip “hook,” trying to cover the entire area, especially under the perches. But beware of leaky nectar bottles, since those drops ruin your chances of getting a worthy sample. And I’ll have you know it might take an entire day (or two) to accumulate enough material from a hummingbird just to see with the bare eye, let alone to scrape up enough to put into a cup.

Other animals, usually hoofed ones, come to us in a group, and we have to make sure that we know exactly which “gems” came from which individual. This is one of those parts of the job that you either like or you don’t. It can be a very time-consuming challenge, because as you know, “a watched pot never boils,” or, in some cases, a watched gazelle never poops. I try to be casual, just standing off to the side watching the back ends while all the front ends are watching me. Another strategy is to come around every hour or so, get their attention, get them walking, get things moving. I personally feel that I have a better chance of getting a good sample when the animal is lying down when I arrive and then gets up when I open the door. They usually stretch, look at me, and walk away while pooping. Jackpot!

Sometimes this can backfire, no pun intended, because I might get more than just the one animal I need to collect from to stand up, stretch, and walk around defecating. “Oh no, no no no, please stop.” This is when our super-keeper observation skills come in handy. As soon as the much-needed “gems” have hit the floor, we make a mental note of the individual animal’s I.D. and take a mental picture of the precious pile and its location. It is difficult not to be distracted by the other, ever-multiplying gems, so we just hope we can pop in there and collect the sample without disturbing anyone or the pile. To add to the challenge, if it is not safe to be in with the animal, either because they are too scared or they are too scary, we’ve got to move them to another space first. “Clock is ticking, people! There is a perfect little pile in there that needs to be submitted, and I’ve got to get my hands on it before someone walks through it or adds to it.”

Getting a much-needed fecal sample is something to celebrate. Once our clinical laboratory technicians get their hands on the goods, look at it under a microscope, and send us the thumbs up sign, we know the animal is one step closer to being out of quarantine and released to Zoo grounds. It’s the little things, and sometimes the really little things, that can make a keeper’s day here on Hospital Hill.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: Take Your Medicine.