For those of you who have visited the San Diego Zoo lately and not seen our magnificent male Asian elephant, Ranchipur…well, he had to go into our Special Needs Facility for a surgical procedure on his left front shoulder. In February 2011, we noticed a lump there, which we began treating and monitoring. About two months later, when the lump opened up on its own, and we knew it was an abscess, we began doing hydrotherapy and flushing it daily with a diluted disinfectant solution. Many of you probably saw us treating his shoulder in the Elephant Care Center stall area, since we always did it right there in front of our guests. We were not sure what had initially caused the abscess; we just wanted it to heal, even though Ranchipur was always very compliant during the treatment. After our veterinarians brought in a specialist to look at it, the decision was made to open up the abscess, clean it out, and leave the incision open so it would heal from the inside out.
Our veterinary staff decided we would do a “standing sedation” on him in our Special Needs Facility. This meant that he would go into the chute, be given a sedative, but he would still remain standing so we could access the shoulder. This involved taking him off exhibit for about three weeks while several keepers trained him for the procedure. On September 18, 2012, we brought him into the chute area, gave him a sedative, and started the surgery. There were close to 30 people on hand to assist in the process.
Once Ranchipur was secure and sedated, his shoulder was injected with a local anesthetic, and the surgery began. Everyone on the team had their assignments: one group monitored his breathing and anesthesia, another did an ultrasound image of the shoulder area before it was opened, vet techs worked at getting blood samples while another vet did a full physical exam. Lastly, the surgeons worked on the shoulder. Once they removed what was an encapsulated abscess about the size of a tennis ball and the area was cleaned up, the wound was flushed and left open to heal.
We do this because an elephant’s skin does not take well to being stitched up, and in this particular area on his body there is a lot of movement, so it would be difficult to keep it closed with sutures. We did give him a few sutures inside the wound at the very top, but the major portion of the incision was left open. This gives us the opportunity to flush it out daily with a hose and antiseptic solution. The surgery went great, Ranchipur recovered nicely, and he is now back on exhibit in his yard next to the dromedary camels and pronghorn in Elephant Odyssey.
When you visit, you may see that his shoulder still has an open wound. It may take several months for the wound to totally heal. We will continue to treat and take care of his shoulder until the day it completely heals. If you have any questions, make sure you ask one of us keepers who work in Elephant Odyssey.
Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Zoo Elephants: Ranchipur.