animal ambassador


Helping Harvey

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.


Victor Lives On

Victor the echidna

At the end of April, the San Diego Zoo mourned the passing of probably its oldest mammal resident. He arrived here in 1956 and was believed to be more than 58 years old at the time of his death. Was he a great ape? An elephant? A rhinoceros? None of the above. Victor was a short-nosed echidna, a spiny, egg-laying mammal (called a monotreme) from Australia about the size of a large housecat. In his years in our Children’s Zoo, Victor touched (or at least was touched by!) thousands of visitors fascinated by this unusual and amazing creature. His death may have ended his long career as an animal ambassador, but even after death, Victor continues to be a source of important information and learning.

Part of our job in the Wildlife Disease Laboratories is to help ensure the health and well-being of the animals in our care. But no matter how well we do our job, all animals eventually reach the end of their natural lifespan, be it 6 years or 60. When this happens, we try to make the most of a difficult situation by turning it into an opportunity to share and to learn. What we learn from our animals after they die is very important and helps our living collection. We are keeping the live animals alive by learning from them after they pass away. Learning and sharing knowledge is a key role we play in the circle of life.

Thousands of Zoo visitors met Victor up close during his time with us.

When Victor died, his body came to us. We performed the animal version of an autopsy, called a necropsy, to look for disease and determine his cause of death. How do we do this? Well, if you’ve seen an episode of CSI or Bones, you probably have some idea, but the lesions of natural disease are different, and recognizing them depends first and foremost on knowing what is normal. As you can imagine, in our line of work, with the large diversity of animals we see, “normal” is relative! With their narrow, toothless beaks, lack of external ear flaps, internal testicles, and single opening for urogenital and digestive tracts (called a cloaca), normal for an echidna is certainly abnormal for most other mammals. In fact, it sounds more like a bird!

Never having seen the inside of an echidna, we relied on knowledge of the species, published information, and years of experience with other animals to separate abnormalities related to disease from normal anatomy. Luckily for us, there are generally more similarities than differences, and a disease in one species often looks the same in another. Ultimately, Victor’s problem, like many older primates and dogs, was his heart. A large, dilated heart with white streaks of scar tissue in its muscle points to heart disease in any animal. Victor had been undergoing treatment for heart failure when he died, and the necropsy findings confirmed the clinical diagnosis.

While this information about one animal might not seem like much, over time, with thorough documentation, knowledge of the common diseases in echidnas will help zoos screen their animals for these diseases and initiate treatment earlier. Tissues preserved from Victor on glass slides are now part of a museum-quality archive that can be used for future studies. Additional tissue samples went to other research divisions at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, where these precious specimens could provide important insights in the fields of genetics and reproductive physiology. His body was donated to a museum to be a source of learning and enjoyment for future generations.

Our collections are a finite and irreplaceable treasure of biodiversity, which is why we collect, conserve, and share biomaterials in support of nonprofit research that furthers our conservation and education mission. In this way, Victor lives on!

April Gorow is a research coordinator and Rachel Burns is the Steel Endowed Pathology Fellow, Wildlife Disease Laboratories, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up

Guests of our Reptilemania tweet-up got up close with our Galápagos tortoises and took home a free snake plush!

UPDATE: All spots for our Festival of Flight tweet-up have been filled! Follow us on twitter to be part of the next tweet-up.

If you follow us on Twitter, you know we like to hook up our followers with free stuff, but by far the best perk is our tweet-ups. Tweet-ups are special on-grounds meet-ups just for our social media followers, and they usually involve up-close animal interactions and presentations not available to other guests. For our Reptilemania tweet-up, guests got to touch one of our slithery animal ambassadors, feed our Galápagos tortoises, and take home a free snake plush. For our Koalapalooza tweet-up we tracked “koalas” (the plush kind) using the same equipment that our researchers use in the field, and got up close with a kookaburra and, of course, a koala.

We’ve also had tweet-ups at the Safari Park. During Butterfly Jungle, our tweet-up guests were granted access to the event through a closed-off side entrance, avoiding the line and enjoying a private presentation of a few creepy crawlies by the Park’s insect keeper. The Park’s Cheetah Run tweet-up was even sweeter. It offered guests the full VIP treatment, allowing them to watch the run from our special VIP viewing zone and meet a cheetah up close, which is something we normally charge $40 extra for!

Guests of our Cheetah Run tweet-up got the full VIP treatment

We also hold raffles and give away free stuff at most of our tweet-ups, with prizes ranging from animal plushes to tickets for super-awesome behind-the-scenes experiences. For example, at our most recent #AnimalStars tweet-up, we raffled off five panda adoption packages and one grand prize of four Backstage Pass tickets. Check out this stellar blog and video for more on our last tweet-up.

The best part about our tweet-ups is that they’re FREE with admission. If you’re a member, consider them a perk of your membership. As you may know, Festival of Flight is coming November 10 through 13, 2011. We had a tweet-up for last year’s event involving a guided tour of the Scripps’ and Owens’ aviaries by one of our bird keepers and up-close bird viewing, but we wanted to offer something even better this year. That’s why on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m., we’re letting you loose (with supervision of course) in our Backstage Pass flamingo zone for some up-close flamingo fun! You’ll also enjoy presentations of a few other feathered friends by our expert Backstage Pass trainers…but there’s a catch. Because of the limited space in our flamingo zone, we can only invite 23 guests to join us for this tweet-up. So how do you get an invite? Listen close. Make sure you’re able and willing to attend on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m. (Zoo admission required). Then follow us on twitter and tweet these exact words:

I want to go to the @sandiegozoo #FestOfFlight tweet-up for some #FlamingoFun!

The first 23 people who tweet the above will get a direct message from us with an invite to the tweet-up. If you want to bring a guest or your kids, let us know and we’ll try to make accommodations depending on space available, but no promises. We apologize for the limited space, but we’re super excited to introduce you to our beautiful winged friends. Now hurry and get tweeting!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Facebook Winner joins us in the Field.


A Little Binturong in the Big Apple

You may have already seen our young binturong (bearcat) out and about in the San Diego Zoo, or maybe you just received your August 2011 copy of ZOONOOZ. Or maybe, just maybe, you caught his national debut on TODAY in New York last week. At just over a year old, the very charming Phu Ket (foo-ket) has definitely proven himself as a star animal ambassador for the San Diego Zoo. Though he has traveled around San Diego with me and his other trainers before, and has even been on many local TV news shows, the trip to New York is exceptional in many ways.

On the human side of it all, there is a lot of preparation for our appearance in New York. We ship out everything we will need for our stay well in advance. It sure is nice having everything we need waiting for us once we get there. Then we get ready to fly out with our animals, making sure we have everything we need to travel with them, including things that make them feel at home wherever we may be.

On Phu Ket’s list of “things that make him feel at home” is his rather large (a little bigger than him) stuffed animal toy that looks like a cartoon duck. He loves to cuddle and sleep with it, and thus it was clear it needed to come to New York with us. As we traveled across the country, everyone cracked a smile, even pointing and laughing a little, when they saw a Phu Ket’s crate with this bright yellow duck strapped to the top. My response was always the same, “He’d have it in there with him, but there’s just not enough room in there for both of them.”

Upon arriving in New York and setting up his habitat in the hotel room (yes, animal ambassadors stay in a hotel room with us), Phu Ket was more than happy to see his beloved duck had safely made the trip with us. It was very cute to see him jump up, flop down onto the duck, and then roll with it when he first saw it. The next morning, when it was time to get ready to go to the TODAY studio, I sure wish I had a camera with me: little Phu was all curled up in his bedding with one foreleg and his head resting on the duck. Not only did he look adorable, but very comfortable, too.

When we returned to San Diego, I was asked several times how Phu Ket did with his big adventure to New York. One word that came up time and time again was “solid.” This is a term sometimes used in animal training to define an animal that is very comfortable and confident in many surroundings and is not affected by much of anything. From our flights across country in cargo planes to being in the big television studio to staying in a hotel room, this little binturong took it all in stride, as if this is something he has always done. What’s really important to understand is that this is all a result of the outstanding team of keepers and trainers that have worked with him since his arrival to the Zoo so many months ago. A lot of work and dedication to his training has indeed given him the confidence to be a great animal ambassador.

If you missed his national television debut, here’s a link to the show he was on.

And if you live in San Diego, you might see him on one of our local news programs again soon. Of course, if you come to the Zoo, keep an eye out for this young and playful binturong. He has stolen my heart, and with his charisma he’s bound to get yours, too.

Rick Schwartz is a keeper and ambassador for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Meeting Famous Galápagos Characters.


Cheetah and Dog Pals

cheetah_bakka_mileyBakka is a male South African cheetah and Miley is his female husky-mix domestic dog companion. This unique pair lives at Backstage Pass at the San Diego Zoo. Bakka is only a year old but has many adventures under his collar already. He began life in South Africa, where he was hand raised for the purpose of becoming an animal ambassador in the name of conservation. At six months of age, he flew to America, where he lived on a ranch in Northern California. His incredibly friendly demeanor made him a great candidate for employment at our Zoo, and after a successful interview, he became a member of our animals stars at the Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. But in order to keep him company, we needed to find him a suitable roommate. Why not a dog? Seriously, why not?

dog_mileyMost dogs are brave, smart, and, more importantly, very friendly with people. But not just any dog would do. We needed one with personality, composure, and pizzazz. A simple test was given to auditioners: walk them by barking dogs and watch to see how they react. If they ignore the commotion with grace and style, they pass. If they engage in it, then they probably aren’t what we were looking for. Miley scored a “10” in all categories.

Now I’m sure you are wondering: How were we going to introduce a one-year-old exotic male cheetah to a 2-year-old female domestic dog? Won’t he look at her as if she’s his next meal? We are trained professionals, so don’t try this at home! The San Diego Zoo has always paired dogs with cheetahs (see The Cheetah and the Golden Retriever). In the beginning, we kept these animals in enclosures that were next to each other, and we allowed contact between the two while they were with one of their trainers, leashes and collars in tow. We encouraged relaxed, calm behavior. We gradually moved to allowing the dog off leash and encouraged relaxed, calm behavior.

cheetah_bakka_miley_leashYou are now probably wondering who will be the leader in this odd coupling? If you chose the dog, you are absolutely right. So when Miley took the lead, in fact took the leash that was attached to Bakka the cheetah in her mouth and began walking him around the pen, we all applauded and laughed. Miley certainly had pizzazz! Today, if you happen to peek over the hedge at Backstage Pass or even better, purchase a ticket to enjoy this 1½-hour animal encounter, you will see Miley and Bakka working and walking together. Job well done, you two!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read about another animal member of the Backstage Pass team, Sicilian Donkey Sophia.


Fossa Milestones

It has been a while since many of you have last heard about the San Diego Zoo’s young fossa, named Isa (see previous post, Fossa Fun). During the last few months, Isa has passed many milestones in his development. As you may remember, he was raised in the Children’s Zoo (CZ) nursery with his brother who, unfortunately, died a short time later of a heart condition. Concerned for Isa’s well-being, we doted over him and tried to fill his every need. Of course, we were concerned that Isa would also be afflicted with some sort of health problem that would cut his life short. Time proved that he would grow into a handsome young fossa and dazzle all who know him. Currently he is strong, healthy, and happy, and living in the CZ, excelling at his job of being an animal ambassador.

We tried different training techniques with Isa and figured out which one would work best for his species and personality. When he was still in the nursery, we introduced him to a collar and a leash. We would let him wear it for a short period of time and gradually lengthen that time. Before long he acted as though it wasn’t even there. Then we took him on short walks and gradually lengthened the time of those as well. He was so curious on his own with just his natural surroundings that we stopped using toys to keep him entertained. He would climb trees, rocks, run along wall tops, etc. We had to be track runners just to keep up with him!

As he grew and got more coordinated, he started jumping from tree to tree, and then the challenge became not to get the leash wrapped around something and interrupt his momentum. You had to be ready for fun and running when you took the fossa out for a “walk.” People would try to take pictures, but he moved so fast that usually it was just a blur on their camera.

Today, Isa is a regular participant in the CZ’s animal ambassador program and periodically appears on the news and other television shows, VIP presentations, private and corporate events held at the Zoo, and last, but not least, daily walks around the grounds of the CZ.

His future looks bright and busy. He has impressed his trainers by his honest and affectionate personality, and we will continue to uncover and share his amazing abilities and uniqueness with all of you. Isa has many more milestones to pass, and personally I believe that the more I know about Isa and fossas in general, the more I will continue to be in awe of this little known, misunderstood animal.

Heidi Trowbridge is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.