hospital keeper


Koala Boys: Best Buds

The best friends share space during quarantine.

The best friends share space during quarantine. Thackory is on the lower branch.

Thackory and Milo are two juvenile male koalas who just recently returned from a loan*, graduated with flying colors from our quarantine area, and are settling into their bachelor digs in the San Diego Zoo’s awesome new Australian Outback. These kids have had a busy first 2½ years, and with all of the adventures they’ve experienced together, they have formed a strong and unique bond.

It all started the summer of 2011 when both koalas were born within weeks of each other here at the Zoo. Since they were males and so close in age, the decision was made to house them together as soon as they were out of the pouch and on their own to conserve space—we are a conservation organization, you know! Always being roommates seems to work well for these two, since most male koalas are typically not housed together. This was the start of a beautiful friendship.

At home in the grocery store!

Milo is at home in the grocery store!

Although Thackory and Milo have always lived together, during their first few days back in San Diego, they were housed next to each other in quarantine with no access between the rooms. This is the usual protocol for male koalas since they tend to be single, solitary, and territorial. But soon word spread that these boys were buddies, and the common door was opened. To be honest, they didn’t even notice! Giving each other a very subtle “Hey, what’s up?” look, they proceeded to chow down on the closest branch of tender eucalyptus.

As per protocol—there’s that word again—hospital keepers weighed our quarantined koalas every day during their first week here. This is a great way to monitor how the animals are reacting to their move. Typically, koalas start at a certain weight on Day 1 and then have a dip in weight the next few days, ending on a high note usually at or above their incoming weight on Day 7. Daily weights meant lifting each animal out of his tree, putting him on a scale, and then returning him to his room, consciously placing him on the same side and sometimes the same perch as his roommate, just to test the relationship to make sure it is still compatible. These laid-back boys always passed this test every time; since they’ve grown up together, they’ve always had to share. And as my kinder at home states, “sharing is caring.”

Travel, new surroundings, and different eucalyptus impact these sometimes-sensitive animals. Having eucalyptus as their only food source, keepers watch closely to make sure the koalas are eating an appropriate amount. Daily weights are a very helpful monitoring tool, but it can be difficult to monitor intake searching through a huge bundle of “euc” to see what’s been nibbled on, since some koalas choose to eat just the tips of certain species. That is when we look down. You can tell a lot about how much a koala is eating by the amount of poop it produces. Yes, there’s that fun topic again!

Thackory and Milo had an amazingly uneventful 30-day quarantine period, living together in the same space and sometimes on the same perch. Peering through the huge euc bundle, we’d see a two-headed-koala or notice five legs hanging out among the leaves. This unique and space-saving bachelor group is a testament to conservation!

We hope this nonchalant and compatible pair continues to share space; since koalas mature around the age of four, our fingers are crossed that their beautiful friendship will continue through their adult years. We wish these buddy bachelors all the best!

*A little side note about our Koala Loan Program: At this time, the San Diego Zoo houses 23 koalas, but technically, we have over 60 in our collection. How is that possible? There are currently 40 animals out on loan at other facilities around the world. Our Koala Loan Program serves as an amazing education and conservation tool. Partnerships and agreements are made between our facility and other accredited facilities to share our koalas for display and husbandry-training purposes, as well as breeding opportunities. This is a great way for people to learn about koalas, and the funding from these loans goes directly toward koala conservation!

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: Leopard Youngsters.


Meet Our New Warthogs

Meet Stuart, a southern warthog!

Meet Stuart, a southern warthog!

Rolling and rooting in mud wallows makes for happy warthogs, and this is one of the features you might see while passing the new Mammal Marsh exhibit during an Africa Tram Safari at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The two warthogs that now reside in this beautiful exhibit are a male and female named Stuart and Orkima. Stuart, a southern warthog, was born Valentine’s Day 2012 and hand-raised at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He was driven across country and arrived at the Safari Park’s hospital quarantine facility at 10 months of age. Very friendly and personable, he quickly became one of our favorites to take care of at the hospital.

Stuart had been trained by his previous keepers to do several behaviors such as sit, stay steady, and touch a target. We started reinforcing these behaviors while in quarantine to maintain a working relationship that is essential to our animal management practices. Make no mistake: warthogs can be unpredictable and dangerous. The trust and familiarity that is established between the animal and keeper, through consistent and constant training sessions, help reduce this threat. Soon, Stuart became one of our Harter Veterinary Medical Center ambassadors, ever ready to show off his trained behaviors to special tour guests. Who wouldn’t love to see a warthog sit and stay while chomping down on his favorite treats?

Keeper Jenna works with Stuart on some behaviors.

Keeper Jenna builds trust through a training session with Stuart.

After Stuart’s quarantine period passed, he was joined at the Medical Center by a young female named Orkima. She was born at the San Diego Zoo in July of 2011 and was chosen to be Stuart’s new companion. They were soon fast friends, sharing the same “pigloo” (a large dog house in the shape of an igloo) at night for sleeping. Since Orkima was parent-reared, she was not as trusting with human contact as Stuart was. We started trying to gain her confidence by working with Stuart in the same area, careful to move slowly, tossing treats to her, enticing her to come closer and feel comfortable with us. Soon, she was taking treats from our hand and was as eager to work for us as Stuart was.

It was now time to transition the warthogs to the keepers that would be taking care of them in their new exhibit. Every day, their new keepers came to the Medical Center to build this new relationship through training sessions and maintaining the pens they were residing in. Transition complete, Stuart and Orkima were moved to their new exhibit this month and are happily making it their home. Come see them on your next Safari Park visit!

Karla Michelson is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Meet Ted, Our New Tiger.


Meet Ted, Our New Tiger

Ted stands for a treat during his quarantine period.

Ted stands for a treat from Karla during his quarantine period.

The Harter Veterinary Medical Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is also the quarantine site for many animals that come into our collection. We currently have an eight-year-old male Sumatran tiger, affectionately called Teddy, who has been with us for the mandatory 30-day quarantine period. During this period we collect samples, run tests, and do physical exams to ensure the health of incoming animals.

Teddy came to us from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoological Garden, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He weighs about 240 pounds (109 kilograms) and has a striking coat of black stripes on a deep orange background, unique to the tiger. He is a very calm and affectionate animal. The keepers at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo have done a wonderful job with Teddy’s training, and he arrived with many learned behaviors that will make our ability to work with him in a new setting much easier.

Some of these behaviors are to sit, lay, roll-over, stand, shift from pen to pen, hold position, and show his right or left paw. The keepers who will be taking care of him in his new home at the Safari Park’s tiger exhibit have been visiting him daily to form the bond and relationship so essential in working with animals of his caliber. He will be joining his new family soon and may be visible on exhibit sometime this month.

Karla Michelson is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Zoo Hospital: What Do You Weigh?

Kirstin weighs a sun bear cub in 2009.

“Hey, Hospital Keepers! Can you get a weight on this animal, please?”

Most of us try to avoid the scale, so it is not surprising when animals do the same. For this reason, hospital keepers have developed many creative ways to convince our patients to put their reservations aside and step up on the scale voluntarily.

Weights are one of the most important and noninvasive observations that we can attain to monitor an animal’s health. There are numerous stories of how keepers have been able to get weights on their animals without handling them or stressing them in any way. From elephants to hummingbirds, everyone must get on a scale once in a while.

Think about when you’ve taken a pet to the vet. Have you seen how your animal is weighed? If the animal is calm, one can simply walk it up onto or plop it into a scale of some sort. Your pet stays still and looks up at you like it’s no big deal. But what if they have other ideas? Maybe the animal doesn’t want to sit still and keeps walking off the scale. Or maybe they stay on the scale but are doing a tap dance the whole time. Or maybe they are scared of it and try their best not to touch it. Or maybe the animal’s first instinct is to destroy it. So many scenarios…

What we try to do here at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine is the same as what the keepers do out on Zoo grounds. Our common goal is to get each animal familiar with the presence of the scale and comfortable enough to step on it. This desensitization process is a special time that could last a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days. When we can’t share the same space with an animal, whether for their safety or ours, physically putting them on a scale is not an option. And because the act of being restrained can be stressful, a hands-off approach works best.

There are many factors to consider when weighing an animal: determining which type of scale set up will work best; getting the animal comfortable with the sight, smell, and feel of the chosen scale; identifying their most active time of the day, their “happy place,” or their favorite food. We also have to consider the animal’s reaction to the keeper’s presence and their level of food motivation. Another thing to factor into the equation is how much your subject weighs. Larger animals are fine to weigh in kilograms, while smaller animals must be weighed on a “gram scale.”

Some scales are built into the floor of the room or tunnel area that the animal travels over on a regular basis. This is the ideal set up for keepers and animals. But most of the scales are portable, with many different components. Platforms are placed across specialized load bars with long cables that attach to an indicator. A metal box is placed over a one-piece base scale with attached cables and reader. Other scales are “all-inclusive” with the platform, weighing mechanism, and read-out wrapped up into one hand-held unit.

The most routine way to get a weight is to set up the load bars, cover them with a platform, and then drop a favorite food item on it. The animal then walks over, steps up onto the scale, and settles in to eat the treat. Once we know that all four feet (and tail, too!) are on the platform, we glance at the indicator and record their weight before they walk away. Sometimes an animal won’t approach the scale until the keeper leaves the area. This is when our hospital’s surveillance camera system comes in super handy. We can focus the camera directly on the scale’s reader and then leave the room. Once the animal thinks it’s alone, it comes over for its treat and stands on the scale. Using our cameras, we can see them and their weight without them seeing us. Pretty sneaky, right?

When food is not a motivating factor, sometimes we’ll place the scale in their favorite corner or we’ll set up their “happy place” directly on the scale. For example, marmosets can’t resist a nest of any kind, so when we’ve had to weigh these little guys, we’ve set up a gram scale in their room, balanced on all four corners to avoid any rocking or extra movement that would compromise the accuracy of the weight. Then we put their favorite basket of hay on the scale, pushed the “tare” button to put the indicator back to zero, and gave the marmoset access to that space. Within seconds we’ve got a marmoset in the nest and ultimately an accurate marmoset weight. It’s like someone slipping a scale under your favorite reading chair at home to get your weight and you’d be none the wiser!

A tinkerbird sits on a perch on a scale.

The same concept goes for other species: get a size-appropriate and secure scale set-up, and then identify what motivates them to hop on. When weighing birds, we place a perch on top of a scale in a high-traffic area close to their favorite spot. Larger birds sometimes take their time to perch; hopefully, not too long or else the scale’s indicator goes to “sleep”! Once the bigger guys are on, they’re on and not going anywhere, so we know we got a solid weight.

For the little itty-bitty birdies, like a hummingbird, keepers have to stand close by to view the “flighty” animal and keep an eye on the scale in hopes of “capturing” the weight when the bird lands on the weigh perch for a split second. We hope to catch a stable number a few times so we can then take an average weight of the “snapshots.”

Monitoring weights is just one of the many labors of love we do as keepers to make sure our animals are thriving. Most of the time it takes longer to set up the scale then it does to get the weight itself. But it is very satisfying to know we have gathered valuable information on our animals, and all without having their day skip a beat!

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: A Panda Patient.


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.


Zoo Hospital: Take Your Medicine

A white-face saki carefully examines an apple slice.

“Hey, hospital keepers, can you please try to get this animal to take this medication?”

“Med compliance” is one of the most challenging things a keeper encounters at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Fortunately, we have a few tricks up our sleeves to get our patients to take their medication voluntarily on food, keeping us from having to grab, restrain, and dose them appropriately, which can be stressful for everyone. During their stay at the hospital we’d like the animals to rest and relax, eat and drink, sleep and heal. When you’re not feeling well, do you feel like eating?

Keepers constantly observe their animals, noting such things as behavior, sleeping habits, and favorite diet items. It is very handy to know an animal’s favorite food just in case we need to sneak some necessary medicine into their diet. More often than not, whether at the hospital or on grounds, the animal will ingest its medication without batting an eye, and everyone is happy.

A less-than-hearty appetite is a problem we sometimes run across up here on Hospital Hill. When keepers are not confident in the animal’s intake, i.e. the animal is eating just a little bit of its diet, or it’s eating around its meds, or having meds on a small part of its food has stopped the animal from eating any part of its diet entirely, then one of our registered veterinary technicians is called in to treat the patient directly.

It is a known fact that some primates can be especially finicky about how their food is presented. When a diet sheet states “leafeater biscuit and root vegetable,” most primates are happy to eat the biscuits (whether dry or sprinkled with water) and the roots (whether carrot or yam, sliced or diced, steamed or raw) separately. But there are those times when the regular diet isn’t good enough. We, the hospital keepers, now face the challenge of finding just the right combination that will be accepted so the primate will start taking its medicine and/or just start eating better. No pressure, right?

One of our tricks is to soak the biscuits to the point where they are almost mush, and yams are steamed, peeled, and mashed. These two ingredients are mixed together to form “yam balls,” which are usually a huge hit. Keepers pull out all the stops, though, to satisfy the requests of even the pickiest of picky eaters: just the right amount of biscuits, with just the right amount of liquid, with just the right amount of steamed yam (not too firm, not too mushy), and sometimes with just the right amount of a secret ingredient (which might be a dollop of applesauce or a piece of smashed banana or…) mixed together and then formed into just the right “meatball-sized” yam ball.

The culinary creation is then presented to the primate. The keeper holds his or her breath and waits anxiously to see if all the effort will be appreciated. Sometimes I use reverse psychology and say, “I don’t care if you eat that” and walk away. The primate will then pick up one of the delicacies with two suspicious fingers, stare at it a bit, and then will either drop it (or throw it) on the ground OR, more often than not, pop it into its mouth with satisfaction. The keeper then exhales and moves on to feeding the next persnickety primate, relieved and proud of a “battle” won and a job well done.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Quarantine for New Animals

Jaguar Nindiri awaits a new companion, currently in quarantine.

As a hospital keeper, I really do get to see a lot of the animals at the San Diego Zoo. There is always someone who is due for an exam. But the Zoo’s hospital doesn’t just take care of patients; we are also in charge of housing new animals coming into the collection. Did you know that before you see any bird, mammal, or reptile at the Zoo or Safari Park, it has been housed in a quarantine area for 30 days? This is to ensure that new animals are not bringing in any diseases or illnesses that may harm the animals in the collection.

During quarantine, every new animal receives a full exam where the vets note in their medical record any concerns they may have. Most animals have a preshipment exam at their prior facility before arriving here, but as the the receiving facility we always conduct a receiving exam to make sure the animal is still okay or to follow up on something the previous vets may have found. Medical records are sent ahead of time or when the animal arrives for the vets to get familiar with, and the information is added to its medical  history. Exams vary, but most include radiographs, a dental check up and cleaning, hoof trim, nutritional evaluation, and an overall wellness check. Besides the quarantine exam, animals also need to submit a weekly fecal to check for parasites and other possible abnormalities.

The majority of new animals tend to pass their 30-day quarantine stay, but there have been cases where they don’t because of respiratory problems (colds) or parasites. Once the animal has been treated and is well,  it is then released to its new home at the Zoo.

The hard part about being a hospital keeper and working with animals in quarantine is that once those 30 days are up, it is sad to see the new guys go. But we know they are moving on to a new home, and sometimes a new mate. Luckily, they are close by, and we can always visit them!

Yvette Kemp is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Enrichment: Fun for Everyone.