Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine


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.


Tonahleah: A Special Koala

Tonaleah has a new joey in her pouch!

Tonaleah has a new joey in her pouch!

Now that everyone has settled in at the San Diego Zoo’s new Australian Outback habitat, which opened in May 2013, we are absolutely thrilled with all of the positive feedback we are getting from our Zoo visitors. In fact, over in our koala harem yards we have some exciting news: one of our females, Tonahleah, has a joey in her pouch! This is the first confirmed birth in our Australian Outback. Koala joeys stay in their mom’s pouch for about six months, so we will not likely see the baby until early 2014.

Dr. Clippinger carefully replaces the newborn joey into her mother's pouch.

Dr. Clippinger carefully replaces the newborn joey into her mother’s pouch.

What makes this news even more special is the unique story of how Tonahleah came into our koala colony. In August 2009, koala Nariah was due to give birth. Being a new keeper to the Zoo, I asked my supervisor, Chris Hamlin, to accompany me to check Nariah for signs of a birth. As luck would have it, at that moment Nariah was hunched over in a birthing position—a rare sight to see. Koala joeys are about the size of a jelly bean when they are born and travel to mom’s pouch completely on their own, where they do most of their developing. Being that this was Nariah’s first joey, we didn’t want to make her nervous, so we gave her space and checked on her throughout the day. As part of my last check, I looked down at the ground and, to my surprise, a tiny pink koala joey had fallen to the ground below Nariah! The good news was that it was still moving.

We rushed Nariah and her joey to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Our veterinary staff quickly made the decision to put the joey back in Nariah’s pouch. It was a bit tricky, but one of our vets, Dr. Tracy Clippinger, did a wonderful job of getting the joey attached to the teat. Once it was secure, you could actually see the milk immediately enter into the joey’s stomach. It was a success! We are so lucky here at the San Diego Zoo to have such a wonderful vet staff. Our veterinarians, vet techs, and hospital keepers do an amazing job at keeping our animals healthy and handling emergency situations.

Tonahleah is now attached and filling up with Mom's milk.

Tonahleah is now attached and filling up with Mom’s milk.

Six months later, a perfectly healthy female joey emerged. All of our koalas have names with Aboriginal meanings. We decided to name this koala Tonahleah, which means “sun.” We thought this name was appropriate, given the fact that I found her lying on the ground in a ray of sunlight, which probably kept her warm and helped her stay alive.

This will now be Tonahleah’s third joey, and it is so special to think of all the koalas we saved by finding her on the ground that day. Those of us involved realize how lucky we are to be a part of her story, and we love telling it every chance we get. Who wouldn’t, when it has such an adorable and happy ending?

Katie Tooker is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Download our free ZOONOOZ app from the iTunes App Store or click here to check out the June 2013 issue. It’s all about koalas!


Assisting Baby Animals

Kim bottle-feeds a fossa pup.

Kim bottle-feeds a fossa pup.

Many San Diego Zoo visitors, especially our beloved members, are familiar with the building once known as the Children’s Zoo Nursery. Since its construction in 1981, the nursery was often full of a variety of baby animals being raised by caretakers called nursery attendants. Some of the babies stayed in the nursery well past weaning age before returning to their family group. As a consequence, those impressionable youngsters missed out on important life lessons they should have been learning from their own kind.

Over the past 20 years, the focus of neonatal care has evolved. Recently, the nursery staff adopted a new name to reflect the evolution of our hand-rearing practices and protocols: the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU.) The NACU is staffed by five dedicated keepers who collectively hold over 110 years of hand-rearing experience, and we have learned to expect the unexpected. Last-minute changes to daily schedules or work load are not unusual. We may be required to help administer intense medical care at a moment’s notice or work around the clock to care for a sick baby. Our goal is to assist in the care and rearing of baby animals that would otherwise not survive without human intervention.

Becky bonds with a camel calf.

Becky bonds with a camel calf.

As a subdivision of the Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department, we work closely with the veterinarians and the nutritionists to provide necessary medical and nutritional support. We then depend on the baby’s own natal group to impart behavioral and social skills. Getting this done takes a lot of planning, foresight, patience, flexibility, and, most importantly, teamwork. Together we hope to raise a physically, mentally, and socially sound individual.

A lot of work goes into assisted care. It all starts when a neonate is found sick, injured, or abandoned. The keepers transport the animal to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for an exam by a veterinarian. The baby may be treated for a variety of conditions including dehydration, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and/or infection. It may take several hours before the struggling baby is deemed stable enough to eat. After that, the NACU keepers are called upon to offer the first bottle of formula.

Mary Dural helps a cheetah cub.

Mary Dural helps a cheetah cub.

Our expert nutritionists choose formula ingredients that match the mother’s milk as closely as possible. The variety of formulas is impressive. Each one is designed to meet an animal’s individual nutritional needs. Once the correct formula is mixed, the appropriate bottle and nipple must be selected. Even with a suitable formula and nipple, encouraging animal babies to nurse from a bottle is not always easy. These babies are often stressed, uncomfortable, and obviously in an unnatural setting. We have to be gentle and patient, sometimes working with a baby for hours or even days before it is willing to nurse. As soon as an animal is nursing reliably and is medically stable, we begin taking important steps toward returning it to its family.

Janet Hawes feeds a bonobo baby in his exhibit.

Janet Hawes feeds a bonobo baby in his exhibit.

Typically, the first step of an introduction is allowing visual access between the baby and the adults through a screen or fence. The point at which we move on to the next step depends largely on the family’s response to the baby. Several factors can hinder the process: an adult animal may be aggressive, the baby might get sick, or the weather may prompt a sudden housing change. We may have to delay or modify a plan numerous times before moving on to the next step. Each introduction is a learning process, and flexibility is extremely important. Regardless of any temporary setbacks, the baby still has the opportunity to assimilate species-specific information from its family such as odors, vocalizations, behavior, and food manipulation.

While caring for the babies living with their families, the NACU keepers make multiple trips around the Zoo. On any given day, you may see our NACU golf cart driving up and down the canyons packed with bottles labeled “Speke’s Gazelle,” Steenbok,” or “Gorilla.” In addition to delivering meals on wheels, we monitor growth rates, design weaning schedules, and adjust bottle amounts as needed. Once a baby is weaned from milk, our involvement comes to an end. It is up to the youngster’s family to continue the social and behavioral education, and the area keeper maintains a watchful eye on the little one’s progress.

Jo MIlls provides a welcome scritch to a XXX calf.

Jo Mills provides a welcome scritch to a reindeer calf.

Early introductions encourage the development of relationships that bolster a baby’s confidence. A confident, well-adjusted baby has a better chance to lead a happy, productive life. Adult animals involved in successful introductions play a key role. We rely on them to teach the valuable social lessons we cannot teach. Sometimes social lessons are gentle and gradual, while others might involve a quick chase around an exhibit to teach a kid the social order of things. Eventually, the dust settles and family life returns to normal.

Every neonate needing assistance is special, and it is a privilege to work with them. Some cases leave us energy-depleted, but the joy of working in the NACU is seeing a neonate reunited with its family and thriving. Our greatest reward is having played a small part in making this happen.

Becky Kier and Kim Weibel are senior keepers at the San Diego Zoo. Read Becky’s previous post, Motherhood: What If…? Read Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Boris Steps Out.


Blood Sample from Gao Gao

Gao Gao doing what he does best--eating!

Gao Gao doing what he does best–eating!

I was motivated to attempt my first blog post after seeing some comments and questions in the giant panda blog about “taking a blood sample” to ensure that our pandas our healthy. What a great opportunity to share with our panda fans the work we do in the clinical labs at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park!

Our veterinarians determine when blood (or urine or feces) should be collected from animals, such as the giant pandas. Reasons could be for a health checkup or before anesthesia or to investigate a potential health issue. One of the analyses performed on the blood sample is called a CBC (or complete blood count). The sample collected from Gao Gao during his exam last month was sent to the Clinical Laboratory at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine to be analyzed.

This is a photo of one of Gao Gao’s healthy white blood cells, surrounded by normal red blood cells.

This is a photo of one of Gao Gao’s healthy white blood cells, surrounded by normal red blood cells.

The CBC includes a careful look at the white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and packed cell volume. White blood cells are the cells that protect us from disease and foreign materials. The number of white blood cells counted in the blood can help determine if the animal is fighting an infection. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body, and a low number of red blood cells may reflect anemia. An adequate number of platelets ensure that the body’s clotting mechanism is normal. The packed cell volume (PCV or hematocrit) helps the veterinarians determine if the animal is dehydrated, fighting a disease, or is losing blood somewhere.

The laboratory technicians also put a drop of blood on a glass slide and smear it out to make a nice thumbprint shape. After we put the slide in a special stain, we are able to look at the cells under the microscope. We then report to the veterinarians what we see. Certain cell shapes and colors can indicate whether or not the animal is healthy. We can also see if there are enough platelets present and if there are any parasites in the blood. Data from these tests, among others, complete the CBC.

All of this information helps our veterinarians quickly assess the health of an individual animal. During Gao Gao’s last exam, his CBC was normal for adult giant pandas, and he was returned to his exhibit a happy panda!

Niki Zarcades is a clinical laboratory technician at the San Diego Zoo.


Clouded Leopards: Beautiful Boys Arrive

Clouded leopard cub Riki-san

I sat waiting in the dark, searching the various doors on the gigantic FedEx plane for signs that Nicki Boyd, behavior husbandry manager, was about to emerge. Nicki had safely landed in San Diego on this cargo-only flight from Tennessee, bringing very precious cargo from the Nashville Zoo’s clouded leopard breeding program. Suddenly, one of the security guards approached my vehicle, knocked on the window, and said, “Here they come.” Nicki and a FedEx employee carried a large airline crate across the tarmac. Inside were two beautiful clouded leopard brothers, only 14 weeks old. They were hand raised at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere and were coming to the San Diego Zoo as ambassadors for our Backstage Pass program.

All new animals to our collection must undergo a period of quarantine, necessary to ensure that they not have any infectious disease. So, before the boys could join the gang at Backstage Pass, we had to keep them segregated while our veterinarians cleared them for a variety of infectious agents. Since the boys were young and needed TLC, we decided to quarantine them inside our Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU), known as the nursery by many, facility rather than at our Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine as we usually do.

For the NACU keepers, this was something new and exciting! We hadn’t had a chance to work with clouded leopard cubs since 1990, and these cats had always been a favorite species of ours. We prepared everything in advance: our unit was clean and ready for the boys’ arrival.

The two cubs were surprisingly calm in the transfer crate, curious about their surroundings and greeting me with a shrill chirp. They cried just a few times on the drive to the Zoo but were calm and patient. We carried the crate to the nursery area and opened the crate door. As each cub was released, we weighed him and held him awhile for reassurance, then released him into his new, temporary home. We had constructed a climbing structure for the cubs to play on and placed soft towels, rugs, cat trees, toys, and other enrichment items around the nursery. The cubs sniffed around tentatively at first but were playing with each other and exploring their new climbing structure and toys almost immediately.

NACU keeper Mary Dural prepared their evening diet as directed; she weighed out a portion of raw meat-based zoo carnivore food. Nicki brought some of the meat with her from Nashville, since our zoo does not use the same product. Our Nutritional Services department will change the diet for the cubs, transitioning them from the product they are currently on to our zoo carnivore diet. Since all diet changes are made gradually, we will make the transition slowly, increasing the new diet a little bit on each successive day.

That night each cub ate heartily and drank fresh water. We watched as they played, explored, and attacked each other until they began to tire and flopped themselves down on the floor. It was time to turn out the light and put the cubs to bed. They had arrived safe and sound, but it had been a long day for them.

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, No Babies? What Do Nursery Keepers Do?


No Babies? What Do Nursery Keepers Do?

Janet took this photo of Xiao Liwu in his den from a bedroom perspective.

The San Diego Zoo’s neonatal assisted care unit (NACU) provides care for baby animals that are not being cared for by their natural mothers. There are five of us nursery keepers, and we provide assistance for youngsters until they are weaned, stable, and are living with their families. Things change at a moment’s notice for nursery keepers—this is the nature of our work. We never know what baby we may be caring for next or at what time of the day or night a new baby will arrive. Even with a large and diverse animal collection like we have at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, there are times when there are no babies that need our specialized help. This is good news, because it means that all the neonates are with their natural mothers, and that is where they should be.

But what do we nursery keepers do during the slow times?

Janet and her fellow nursery keepers usually tend to baby animals such as this kudu.

We have recently experienced one of our slow times, so we have been working in various areas around the Zoo with the adult animals. Some of our latest stints have been with hoofed animals, giant pandas, gorillas, bonobos, primates, and the animals that are part of our shows and special programs. We have also had the privilege of standing in as keepers at the Zoo’s hospital, the Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine.

The experiences we have gained from working alongside keepers have been terrific. There are many interesting and endearing animals in our collection requiring specialized, dedicated care. We even get a chance to see some of our “nursery graduates” all grown up and living with their families. Being a keeper in a new area is fun and exciting, but it is also like being the new kid on the block. We are learning the ropes in so many new places that we’re on a learning curve every day! We return from our shifts in the Zoo with a dirty uniform and some great stories and experiences.

Nursery keeper Joanne tests her “wings” with a pelican.

The awesome keeper staff shows us how food and enrichment items are presented and how often and how each indoor bedroom and exhibit area is maintained. As time goes on, we get acquainted with some of the individual personalities of the animals and pick up other useful tidbits, such as where does the poop usually land?!

Caring for adult animals is important for us as NACU keepers. We can understand more about how our baby animals will be cared for when they graduate from the nursery. We can know more about the family and herd dynamics of our collection animals and understand more about how the babies we help to care for will live as adults. We can get to know the keepers who will care for our babies after they pass from our care and what the facilities they will be living in are like. This will help us to be better caregivers and broaden our perspective of animal science and husbandry.

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Visit the Mob.


Guam Rails Fly Home

Guam rail

The Guam rail Gallirallus owstoni, a small, flightless bird, is extinct in the wild. This species was abundant as recently as the early 1960s, but due to the introduced brown tree snake, the rail is now virtually extinct in its historical range of Guam. As part of the AZA’s (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Species Survival Plan (SSP), several institutions are diligently working to manage this species and work toward reestablishing it in the wild. As of last summer, there were 159 Guam rails in AZA institutions and in captivity on Guam. This number qualifies the Guam rail as a “Yellow” SSP, which means that the population is potentially sustainable but requires careful management to increase its sustainability.

As part of SSP recommendations, the San Diego Zoo’s Bird Department was involved this past March in sending five Guam rails to Guam. The birds we sent are candidates for release into the wild and are genetically diverse additions to the captive population housed on Guam. Our male, whom you may remember along the trail to the old Lory Loop, along with three others from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and one from the San Antonio Zoo, were gathered here to undergo a pre-shipment quarantine period, as all exported birds are required to do. Our zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom have been designated as U.S. quarantine stations for Guam rails. All five birds were housed in mosquito-proof pens at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for their quarantine period. Various health panels were performed by our veterinary staff to ensure the health of the birds prior to shipment.

Shipping procedures were carefully followed according to International Air Transport Association specifications. Crates for the Guam rail were carefully custom made by Dave Durflinger, a carpenter from our Construction and Maintenance Department. Each compartment had special care taken so that the birds would travel in comfort and safety: carpet on the floor, foam on the roof, and mosquito netting over every opening. The mosquito netting is required for birds traveling to any island country so as to prevent mosquitos from traveling along. Jaime Paramo, our resident crate expert, put the final touches on the crate. The Guam rails were traveling in high style!

While all of the pre-ship preparations and health exams were proceeding, the curatorial staff was working hard to take care of all the legal documentation for the shipment, making arrangements for the flights to Guam and arranging the required U.S. Fish and Game inspection of the birds in their crates. Carol Dittmer in the curator’s office even made arrangements with the Honolulu Zoo to check on the birds during their layover in Hawaii. As you can see, it is truly a group effort to get these birds to their destination!

The Guam rails arrived safely at their destination on March 15. I checked with the staff at the facility where the birds are housed: all are currently doing very well. The male that was on Lory Loop is a likely candidate for staying at the station and being part of the resident population. The three birds from the Safari Park are candidates for release into the wild. As the tree snake population on Guam has not been eradicated, the island is still not a safe release site for the species. Currently, the birds are released on the island of Rota, which is similar in habitat to Guam but has no tree snakes, so it is safe for the Guam rail. The bird from the San Antonio Zoo is still quite young, so his status has yet to be determined.

As you can see, sending these birds to Guam is a really big deal. It is a great example of how San Diego Zoo Global is a conservation organization, a demonstration of how our work helps endangered species, and an inspiration to our guests and staff alike to get involved and help endangered wildlife.

Amy Flanagan is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.


Zoo Hospital: Leopard Youngsters

Welcome, Amur leopard kids! Here's one of the boys...

What’s furry, has 12 legs, and is one of the cutest things you’ll ever see? Our Amur leopard siblings! Two brothers and a sister entered quarantine at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine in March. The Amur leopard is considered to be one of the most critically endangered big cats in the world, with just 35 remaining in the wild, all in the Russia’s Far East, so we were very excited about our new arrivals.

As a former large cat keeper at the Zoo, I had been hearing for years that we’ve been trying to get these amazing animals into our collection. I know the exhibit they will be moving into, and I couldn’t be happier. These kids are going to have a blast in their new digs!

...and here's the other boy.

Having worked with many leopard species, I couldn’t help but compare these Amur leopards to other cats. My first impression was that they have the extra-long tail and subtly fluffy fur of our snow leopards, the coloring of our North Chinese leopard, Jama, and the sweet face of our Persian leopard, who is no longer at the Zoo.

The yet-unnamed leopards still have some baby fuzz visible since they’re not even a year old; their first birthday will be May 14, 2012. The boys are both 67 pounds (30 kilograms) and the female is 62 pounds (28 kilograms), so even though they are young, they are already within the range of an adult’s weight. One of the males is taller and lighter and a bit more fiesty. His brother is a little shorter and a tad darker and just a sweetheart. The female is a doll and communicates with us by occasionally making an adorable squeaking sound.

I think I speak for all five hospital keepers when I say it has been an honor to care for these rare and amazing cats. I hope you will enjoy them as much as we have. And you never know, you might even see me there standing right beside you, staring up at them as they enjoy their exhibit in Big Cat Trail.

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

Update: The trio is now on exhibit for all to admire!


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: 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.