A Story of Survival

[dcwsb inline="true"]

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

wallabyIn 2011, keepers and vets at the San Diego Zoo were watching a female Parma wallaby. (Parma wallabies, once thought to be extinct, are an endangered species.) Keepers knew this particular female was deteriorating from esophageal disease, but also had a baby in her pouch. On July 5th, as a keeper was raking the exhibit, she spotted a tiny little critter on the ground—the baby wallaby! The joey was rinsed off and rushed to the Zoo nursery, or Neonatal Assisted Care Unit at the San Diego Zoo.

Tinka, as keepers named this marsupial, was cold, hairless, and embryonic. Her weight was just under two ounces. Keepers guessed that the mother was unable to provide sufficient nutrients (due to her illness) and might have ejected the baby from her pouch.

As a first step of action, the NACU keepers, including Senior Keeper Kim Weibel, kept Tinka in a soft cloth, an environment much like her mother’s pouch. This would not only comfort the joey, but also provide a place for development (as months of crucial growth for marsupials occurs within their mother’s pouch). They created the surrogate pouch out of fleece and flannel, suspending it within an incubator to keep it warm and humid.
Ms. Weibel and her team ordered three special types of Biolac formula from Australia used to hand-rear young marsupials. They began feeding Tinka the protein-rich Biolac 100 every two hours to stimulate development and muscle growth. Soon Tinka started showing signs of improvement; one ear began to stand erect, and peach fuzz began to grow around her face.

Tinka’s diet soon began to change. The keepers gradually introduced Biolac 150 and 200, which were loaded with carbohydrates to stimulate even more growth. She began to gain considerable leg and tail muscle. Keepers at the NACU compared her weight with that of another zoo’s hand-reared wallaby. She was nearly up to normal weight standards for her age! As she began to eat solid foods, Tinka grew out of her once-spacious pouch and had to be fitted with a larger one. To Ms. Weibel and the nursery staff, these significant changes demonstrated her readiness to graduate from the NACU.

Leaving the nursery was a step-by-step process. Keepers gave Tinka time out of the pouch in a playpen in the nursery and sun time in a vacant yard by the wallaby exhibit. This was part of the socialization process to rejoin the family of wallabies. An off-exhibit space was cleared for Tinka behind the enclosure. Soon she began to spend time away from the nursery keepers during the day- with an adult female wallaby! She would always return to the NACU overnight.

On December 26th, Tinka spent her first night in this space alone. When NACU keepers checked on her in the morning, she was perfectly happy, comfortable, and stress-free. As she continued to bond with the single adult female, she eased her way into meeting the rest of the Parma wallabies at the Zoo. She officially graduated from the nursery on February 19th, 2012 and moved in full-time with the rest of the group. According to Ms. Weibel, returning an animal to its home and family group is the most rewarding part of her job.

Tinka’s survival was a success for the Zoo and for Parma wallabies as a species. Parma wallabies are endangered throughout Australia and New Guinea. They were actually thought to be extinct before a population was found on an island near Auckland, New Zealand in 1965. This discovery started a captive breeding program for the species in Australia, hoping to repopulate and reintroduce the species back into the wild. Luckily, although the Parma wallaby remains rare, the population is thought to be slowly increasing, so long as further habitat destruction does not take place. Raising endangered species like the Parma wallaby at the Zoo helps to grow the captive population, allowing more potential for the species to someday be re-released into the wild.

Currently, Tinka is thriving and getting along fabulously with the other females on exhibit. You can see these cute, fuzzy wallabies at the San Diego Zoo across from the 4-D Theatre at the west end of Skyfari. Look for Tinka, and remember her miraculous story of survival and those who helped her along the way.

Carly Jo, Conservation Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2013