hospital keepers


A Knee Makeover for Sweet Otter

Does Sweet Otter deserve her name?

Does Sweet Otter deserve her name?

You may have noticed that the San Diego Zoo’s little otter celebrity had been missing from her exhibit along Center Street for a while. Well, back in July, 2013, keepers noticed the female Cape clawless otter, Sweet Otter, was favoring her right rear leg. Veterinarians were notified, observations were made, and pain medicine was provided. This hands-off approach didn’t seem to do the trick, since Sweet Otter’s lameness persisted. An anesthetic examination was performed, which included radiographs and blood work, with no obvious discoveries. She was returned to her exhibit, urine and fecal samples were submitted, and numerous medications were prescribed. The hope was that this type of noninvasive treatment would be all she needed to recover. But that was not the case, and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was scheduled for Sweet Otter in September.

How does one perform an MRI on an otter? It involves much planning, phone calls, emails, and preparation. When the big day arrived, her keeper brought Sweet Otter to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine in a crate, which was then loaded into one of our vehicles. A veterinarian, vet technician, and hospital keeper then drove our special patient to an off-site animal hospital. If you’ve ever had an MRI, you know that you DON’T MOVE while you are slid into a very small tube and inundated with noisy, sporadic pops and clicks. That is almost impossible for anyone, especially an otter! Hence, Sweet Otter was anesthetized, and because she was such a perfectly placid patient, the MRI was able to pick up her problem almost immediately, and surgery was performed.

What was discovered was a 90 percent tear of her right cranial cruciate ligament. A tibial plateau leveling osteotomy was performed to stabilize the stifle, or knee, joint with a bone plate and screws, which were added to eliminate the need for the cranial cruciate ligament and restore pain-free, normal function. In short, our Sweet Otter got a sweet knee makeover!

The doctor’s orders were to put her on an eight-week exercise restriction, with daily leg massages, leash-walking, and passive range of motion exercises. What?! We had been given the generic recovery instruction form for a dog. We had some fun with that, since obviously it couldn’t be applied to an otter, and Sweet Otter isn’t any old otter, either. She got her name because when she came to us in 2003, she was the opposite of sweet: a full-grown, big and sassy Cape clawless otter (averaging 24 to 28 pounds or 11 to 13 kilograms). She has been entertaining guests and keeping keepers on their toes ever since!

So here we were taking care of our long-term recovery case, Sweet Otter, who was actually being…sweet. Having worked with this animal long ago when I was one of her keepers, I knew how Sweet Otter could be, and I was a little hesitant to share the same space with her. You see, part of her recovery was to house her at the Zoo hospital to have more control over her activity level. Since she was on exercise restriction, she was initially kept in a small room with only a nest box, a small water bowl, and a food pan—nothing to climb on, in, or over, and no pool access in order to keep her surgery site dry.

As soon as she returned from her knee surgery, we noticed an immediate improvement. Though she stayed curled up in her nest box a lot of the time, thanks to our surveillance cameras we were able to monitor her movements from a distance. She still had a “hitch in her giddy-up” but didn’t seem to be uncomfortable anymore, though she was still choosing to walk on three legs, with her back end skipping behind the front end. Muscle-memory was causing her to hold up her leg when on the move, and that once Sweet Otter realized it was now a functioning limb, she would start using it again. Aren’t animals amazingly adaptable?

We hospital keepers had to go in to the same space with this animal to service or clean and feed. This plan worked well while Sweet Otter was still sleeping most of the day, but once she started feeling better, things changed quickly, and we had to go to Plan B. We let Sweet Otter go in to the adjacent outside room during cleaning. The problem was that as soon as we opened the door to “a whole new world,” Sweet Otter didn’t want anything to do with it. We actually tried keeping the access door to the new room open most of one day, with some treats outside. Even with fresh air and food as motivation, it was still too scary for our patient. So we contained her in the nest box during cleaning, Plan C. This worked well until Sweet Otter got frustrated and started opening the door while we were in her room. Plan D: latches were added to her nest box so she couldn’t open her crate door and chase us around during servicing. (She was the only one who enjoyed that game!)

We had finally found a routine that worked for us. The better Sweet Otter felt, the more food motivated she became. Instead of running back to her safe nest box every time we came, she finally started staying out to eat. It greatly helped once the surgery site was healed enough that our otter patient could finally have a pool. By mid-October, almost one month to the day from her surgery, we happily filled a plastic baby pool with water. We expected her to run over and dive in, but Sweet Otter is a very cautious otter and does things on her own time when, and only when, she is ready. So she stood in her doorway and stared at this new addition—for a few days!

Once we started adding food to her pool, she changed her mind. But since her right rear leg was still weak and on the mend, her left rear leg had to do most of the work to propel her over the lip of the baby pool. This precious limb, though healthy, wasn’t always up for the challenge, so in the beginning it wasn’t uncommon to see the front part of an otter in the water and the back part resting on or hanging over the pool’s edge! It took some effort to get her entire body into that little pool, but Sweet Otter was improving by the day. We observed a steady increase in appetite and activity and a great improvement in her overall demeanor. She was no longer difficult to shift from one room to another. Servicing her took less than half the time it did when she first arrived. She would run, splash, and chase her live prey items (goldfish and crawdads) immediately after they were dropped in her pool. She was so fast, they never saw her coming!

Sweet Otter’s recovery was textbook, and our veterinarians and specialists were very impressed with her progress and excellent use of her “new-and-improved” limb. In mid-November, her surgical site was rechecked. The doctor was pleased with the current range of motion in her right stifle joint and stated the healing was progressing well. Radiographs showed that four additional weeks of healing were still needed. After that, if all appeared normal, Sweet Otter could be released to her exhibit with no restrictions! I am happy to report that on a chilly, gray morning in mid-December, Sweet Otter returned to her exhibit. Three months to the day of arriving at the Zoo hospital, our special otter patient had finally “left the building.” We will miss seeing her sweet face every day, begging for food and asking us what we’re doing, but it is nice to see this “sweet” success story back on exhibit.

Come by for a visit and welcome Sweet Otter back home!

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Koala Boys: Best Buds.


Zoo Hospital: Picky Beaver

Welcome, Justine Beaver!

“Hey, Hospital Keepers! How can we get this beaver to eat her wood?”

Feeding animals is as much of an art as a science. We keepers enjoy getting to know the newest animals to the collection while they spend their designated quarantine time with us at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Some of these animals have been picky eaters, and some of these picky eaters have really taught us a lesson or two about food presentation. This past summer, a Canadian beaver came into quarantine. This cute, little, brown-haired female’s name was Justine. Get it? Justin Beiber. Justine Beaver. Ah, Zoo humor. Gotta love it!

Anyway, we’d always giggle about her creative name, but what didn’t make us happy was her appetite. Justine had settled in to her new digs for the mandatory 30-day quarantine period pretty quickly, swimming in her big pool, making a nest out of the wood and fresh browse we provided, and eating most of her pellets and produce. But we did notice that she wasn’t gnawing on her logs like she should.

You see, the majority of a beaver’s natural diet is wood. Our Horticulture Department worked very closely with our nutritionists to provide the appropriate species of wood and browse. We keepers would pick up the delivery, hose it off, and bring it to Miss Beaver, placing it ever-so-nicely in a pile in her room. The next morning we could see that even though she had disturbed the woodpile, she was just picking out the leafier sections to use as bedding and not actually eating much of the wood itself.

Justine goes for a swim.

After some brainstorming, one of our amazing keepers came up with the idea to stand the pieces of wood on end, straight up like a tree. Metal loops were secured to the wall of her enclosure, and the pile was placed vertically. The numerous pieces made a miniature forest, and we all agreed that it looked pretty impressive. Well, it seems that Justine was impressed, too, because the next morning all the wood had been gnawed through. She had cut the forest down overnight, and each log had the characteristic hourglass cutouts we’ve all seen on TV. Success! Throughout the rest of her stay with us, Justine Beaver ate very well, leaving the hospital a tad heavier than when she arrived, which is fine with us.

Justine Beaver is now at the Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl animal show area. She’s been spending the past few months developing the much-needed trust in her trainers in order to go out on stage to be part of the Camp Critters show. So far, Justine goes into her crate without fail, has a new enclosure complete with a natural rock pool and sunning deck, and has been exploring the various other areas within Wegeforth Bowl. The trick to her success seems to be to let her sleep in late and go for a swim before each training session. Then, trainers allow Justine to explore wherever they’ve taken her, and when she’s done, she rides in her crate back home to her brand-new digs! She’s captured everyone’s heart. A date for her show debut is not yet set, as it will be completely up to Justine! She’ll let everyone know when she’s ready and once we know, YOU will know!

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: What Do You Weigh?


Zoo Hospital: The Importance of Poop

How do our intrepid hospital keepers obtain a fecal sample from a Costa's hummingbird?

Hey, Hospital Keepers! Guess what’s coming into quarantine?

Those are always fun words to hear, adding to the surprise element, never-the-same-day-twice, kind-of-like-Christmas aspect of my job. It is always exciting to meet new animals. And I take pride in the fact that, as hospital keepers, we get a “sneak peek” at every animal before it makes its debut at the San Diego Zoo. Whenever there is a new animal that comes into our collection, it must be isolated, monitored, and tested at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for a designated quarantine period. This required time is usually 30 days but can sometimes be longer, depending on the circumstances.

There are so many things that go on during this time that I could share with you. But what I’m going to write about this time is poop.

Yes, you read that right. While an animal is in quarantine, three fecal samples (one week apart) are collected and submitted for evaluation. A small sample speaks volumes! We need to make sure our new additions are not harboring any “bugs” that might compromise their health or be shared with their future exhibit mates or keepers. Fecal collection is a fairly noninvasive process for keepers and animals, just another part of our daily cleaning routine: pick it up, put it in a cup, and send it to the lab. It has to be clean—not on the dirt or in a puddle—and the fresher the better. Yes, you read that right, too! For birds, we sometimes place a large sheet of wax paper under their favorite perch or poop spot to capture the sometimes illusive, minuscule droppings.

You might be thinking, “How does one get a decent fecal sample from a hummingbird?” Good question! We have mastered the technique of draping a sheet of wax paper under the hummingbird’s cage and securing all four corners with a paper clip “hook,” trying to cover the entire area, especially under the perches. But beware of leaky nectar bottles, since those drops ruin your chances of getting a worthy sample. And I’ll have you know it might take an entire day (or two) to accumulate enough material from a hummingbird just to see with the bare eye, let alone to scrape up enough to put into a cup.

Other animals, usually hoofed ones, come to us in a group, and we have to make sure that we know exactly which “gems” came from which individual. This is one of those parts of the job that you either like or you don’t. It can be a very time-consuming challenge, because as you know, “a watched pot never boils,” or, in some cases, a watched gazelle never poops. I try to be casual, just standing off to the side watching the back ends while all the front ends are watching me. Another strategy is to come around every hour or so, get their attention, get them walking, get things moving. I personally feel that I have a better chance of getting a good sample when the animal is lying down when I arrive and then gets up when I open the door. They usually stretch, look at me, and walk away while pooping. Jackpot!

Sometimes this can backfire, no pun intended, because I might get more than just the one animal I need to collect from to stand up, stretch, and walk around defecating. “Oh no, no no no, please stop.” This is when our super-keeper observation skills come in handy. As soon as the much-needed “gems” have hit the floor, we make a mental note of the individual animal’s I.D. and take a mental picture of the precious pile and its location. It is difficult not to be distracted by the other, ever-multiplying gems, so we just hope we can pop in there and collect the sample without disturbing anyone or the pile. To add to the challenge, if it is not safe to be in with the animal, either because they are too scared or they are too scary, we’ve got to move them to another space first. “Clock is ticking, people! There is a perfect little pile in there that needs to be submitted, and I’ve got to get my hands on it before someone walks through it or adds to it.”

Getting a much-needed fecal sample is something to celebrate. Once our clinical laboratory technicians get their hands on the goods, look at it under a microscope, and send us the thumbs up sign, we know the animal is one step closer to being out of quarantine and released to Zoo grounds. It’s the little things, and sometimes the really little things, that can make a keeper’s day here on Hospital Hill.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: Take Your Medicine.