Helping Harvey

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Harvey eyes one of his trainers.

Harvey is one of the beloved animals in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Wildlife Education Department. He is a hyacinth macaw who has been with us for 10 years, and he is estimated to be approximately 36 years old. Harvey serves as an animal ambassador, teaching people about macaws and their plight for existence.

In April, Harvey’s trainers noticed that he was favoring his right leg. He was not using it as much as his left leg when he would walk or climb. Harvey was brought to the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Clinic for an exam and evaluation. We anesthetized Harvey, performed an exam, drew a blood sample, and took radiographs of his right leg. There were no obvious abnormalities found, so it was felt that he may have sprained or strained his leg. He was sent back to his keepers for cage rest and anti-inflammatory medication.

The following month, Harvey stopped using his right foot to perch. His appetite and attitude were normal. He was returned to the clinic for a recheck exam and radiographs. Upon exam, Harvey’s right leg had a decreased range of motion compared to his exam the previous month, a mass was palpated within his right thigh, and his radiographs revealed some soft-tissue swelling in the area. The veterinarian then aspirated the swelling, with a syringe and needle, and submitted the sample to our laboratory for evaluation.

The report was less than hopeful. The results came back as “malignant sarcoma,” a form of cancer. Many discussions followed between our veterinary staff, Harvey’s trainers, and curatorial staff. Harvey’s options ranged from surgical amputation of his leg to multiple radiation treatments. We weren’t even sure the radiation treatments would work on a macaw!

An anesthetized Harvey receives radiation treatment at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Sorrento Valley.

In the meantime, our veterinary staff consulted with outside colleagues for help with Harvey’s case. The oncology department at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Sorrento Valley was contacted and was willing to help with radiation treatments, as we do not have that capability here at the Safari Park. Harvey’s caretakers ultimately decided to try the radiation treatments. His first exam would entail having a CT scan done and a more definitive biopsy. From these results, we would be able to get a better sense of his prognosis and develop an optimal plan for treatment.

For four weeks, we transported Harvey to the Veterinary Specialty Hospital for radiation treatments and took measurements of the leg mass so that we would be aware if it changed in size. He did not seem to experience any side effects from the treatment except for some dry skin. Over the course of his treatment, Harvey went from not using his foot at all to placing his foot back on his perch and being able to use his right foot to pick up a nut!

We are now three months post-treatment. While we do not know how long these results will last, Harvey’s keepers report that he is continuing to do well and has a great attitude and appetite. His recent recheck exam revealed that the mass in his right leg has stabilized and has not grown in size.

Carrie Cramer is a senior registered veterinary technician at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.