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animal care staff

21

A Tusk Task

Vus'Musi, seen here in 2012, had some tusk work done recently.

Vus’Musi, seen here in 2012, recently had some tusk work done.

Vus’Musi is our oldest calf and quite an active boy. He’s 11 years old and likes to spar with our older bull, Msholo, quite a bit. Elephants like to use their tusks to break up browse, dig up things, or displace other elephants by using them as offensive and defensive weapons. If an elephant’s tusk were to break off at the end, and not expose the pulp cavity, it basically keeps growing outward. Occasionally, a tusk breaks either too far back or breaks off near the sulcus, exposing the pulp inside, which allows bacteria to get in and possibly cause an infection.

Vus’Musi recently broke off his right tusk near the sulcus, leaving the red pulp inside exposed. It appeared that he may have snapped off his tusk while attempting to tusk at or move a large tree stump in one of our main yards, but we’re not really sure because nobody witnessed it and we noticed the break when we came in one morning. Fortunately, his keepers have a great relationship with him, so they were able to clean and temporarily cover the end of the broken tusk with Technovit®.

We scheduled Vus’Musi to have a partial pulpotomy and for a filling (a plug) to be put in the tusk to protect it as it heals and grows out. The date was set for February 11 and the elephant keepers worked very hard preparing Vus’Musi for the procedure using operant conditioning with positive reinforcement. On the day of the procedure, all of the hard work between Vus’Musi and his keepers paid off. The vet department, exotic animal dentist, elephant keepers and all of their support staff worked together to make sure that Musi’s procedure was a success.

If you observe Vus’musi on the elephant cam, you can barely see his remaining right tusk protruding just past his sulcus. It will continue to grow out and we’ll continue to take radiographs (think x-rays), to see if it’s healing properly from the inside, because amazingly enough, we’ve found that the tusk can still continue to grow despite infections still festering inside of them. If you’re wondering whether Vus’musi felt any pain either when he broke of his tusk or while there could be ongoing infection, the answer is believed to be no. The pulp cavity is a blood supply only and doesn’t contain nerve endings.

Anyway, he’s back to his mischievous behavior of pestering Umngani and sparring with Msholo, albeit hanging closer to his mom than usual. He’s still a bit of a momma’s boy, but younger brother Lutsandvo took over the title and has surpassed ‘Musi’s world record for nursing.

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Taking Care of Tusks. Curtis Lehman is the Park’s elephant supervisor.

10

Zoo Hospital: Eat Your Food

Who knew babirusas could be such picky eaters?

Hey, Hospital Keepers! Can you get that animal to eat this food, please?

When animals arrive here from other facilities, they often are not used to eating what’s on our menu. During their quarantine period at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine, hospital keepers team with Nutritional Services staff to help animals transition to their new diets.

Upon arrival, each new animal is accompanied by a lot of paperwork from the shipping institution. The information is distributed to the appropriate staff here at San Diego Zoo Global. Such things as diet summary, enclosure description, husbandry management, enrichment ideas, likes and dislikes, photos and videos, medical records, and reproductive history are sent by the shipping institution. You can never have too much information when it comes to caring for animals!

Our nutritionists will have the animal’s most recent diet information, as well as the target diet we will be feeding printed up for the hospital keepers. Our goal is to get our newest resident heartily eating our diet by the end of the 30-day quarantine period. “They are currently eating this; we would like them to eat this. You have a month. Do your best. Go!”
The first week we usually feed our newest arrivals 100 percent of the familiar diet from the prior institution. Depending on the species, we try to offer a bit of our diet, too—a side order to their usual entrée, just to “test the waters.” Sometimes the animal chooses the novel item over their old standby, and within a week or two we have them completely transitioned. For other animals we need to go much slower, starting with 90 percent old diet and 10 percent new diet, then 75/25, 50/50, 25/ 75, and so on.

In many cases we are asked to transition new hoofed animals to our pellets prior to their release from quarantine. There are many ways we can go about completing this important task. We’ll offer one dish of the old diet and one dish of the new diet, or we’ll put the old pellets on one side of the dish and new pellets on the other side of the same dish. Sometimes we’ll mix the pellets together. If there are multiple items being offered, the food dish begins to look like a beautiful pie with wedges of different shades and textures.

One fun example was a pair of young babirusa boys that were in quarantine earlier this year. They were surprisingly stubborn about eating the new Zoo pellets. Pigs are usually easier to transition than most species because they like to eat. A picky pig is rare. So we were surprised when we would mix together the old and new pellets into one bowl, and these boys literally ate around the new Zoo pellets to get to their old stuff! After some brainstorming between keepers and nutritionists, we experimented and made an amazing discovery: if we lightly misted the new Zoo pellets with water and then “dusted” them with Crystal Light powder, the babirusa boys suddenly LOVED our Zoo fare! It then turned into the transition game of getting them off the “powdered pellets” and eating the plain pellets.

We monitor what amounts of food go in with an animal and then weigh and record everything that is left over the next day. These sheets are called “Ins and Outs” and give the animal care staff information to better understand what the animal is choosing to eat. We’ll also weigh the animal, at least weekly, to get a more accurate measure of how they are eating.

And then there is the poop. Yes, that funny topic from my previous post! We note the amount, the color, and the consistency. If a bird doesn’t look like they’ve eaten much out of their food pan, but there is a decent amount of poop on the ground, we know they’re eating enough. If a carnivore is transitioning between meat products, it might get the runs for a day. One indicator we use for a current group of deer is how many “shovelfuls” of poop we haul out every morning!

Gold-breasted starling

A gold-breasted starling just cleared quarantine this week. The bird came in eating “red pellets,” but we had to transition him to “yellow pellets.” This bird was healthy, and so was his poop, which—don’t be shocked—was red. Having the choice to eat red or yellow pellets, he would consistently choose the red. The next morning there would be nothing left but yellow pellets, not a single red one left in his food pan. So we started grinding the red pellets and dusting the yellow pellets. It took a bit, but the bird started picking up more of the yellow pellets, and we slowly phased out the red pellets. Soon his poop changed to a beautiful yellow, and we knew that he was successfully transitioned to his new diet—just another story about the fun we have here at the hospital and just a few more examples of how teamwork, communication, and patience help get the animals on the road from the hospital to Zoo grounds.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: The Importance of Poop.