Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine


A Pocket Full of Fun: Parma Wallaby Baby

This photo was taken just 10 days after Tinka was found on the ground, ejected from her mother's pouch.

We are very pleased to be able to show off our beautiful little parma wallaby baby here in the San Diego Zoo’s Neonatal Assisted Care Unit. Though little Tinka (an Aboriginal name meaning “daylight”) has been with us now for nearly three months, we have kept her out of the public view to provide the proper care for her.

Here's Tinka when she was still in her mother's pouch at about six weeks of age. Photo taken April 7, 2011.

Our veterinarians and nutritionists were keeping a close eye on Tinka’s mom, who was losing weight and had some health problems. They knew that this female had a young joey (baby) in her pouch, so she was monitored closely for several weeks. (It was estimated that the joey was born on February 22, 2011, and crawled up into her mother’s pouch soon after, as all marsupial joeys do.) On the morning of July 5, keepers found a tiny female joey weighing only 71 grams (only a little over 2 ounces!) lying on the ground at the morning check. The hairless baby had been ejected from her mother’s pouch and was dirty and cold. Veterinarians were alerted and the animal was immediately transferred to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine.

Meg Sutherland-Smith, D.V.M., was on hand to attend to Tinka. She examined the baby, carefully rinsed the dirt from Tinka’s eyes, ears, and mouth, started her on antibiotics, and gave her some fluids. Tinka was soon strong and stable enough to be transferred to the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit in the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo for further care.

Pouch young like Tinka that have been orphaned or rejected provide us with some special challenges. Since marsupials are born very tiny and unformed (about the size of a kidney bean), they continue to develop inside the mother’s pouch after birth. Once ejected from Mom’s pouch, we must offer a substitute because these fragile youngsters will not survive without it. We provide an artificial pouch developed and designed by the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. The pouch provides a place where the baby feels safe and secure. It is suspended in an incubator so the young animal will be kept warm and moist. Since the skin is hairless, fragile, and thin, we must care for and maintain it. We apply a special lotion and take care to keep everything immaculately clean.

Next, since these petite babies have such a tiny, narrow palate and shallow suckling response, they require a unique nipple. The marsupial nipple is soft, long, and narrow. In addition to the special nipple, we also have to provide a particular artificial milk formula. This formula comes to us all the way from Australia and is formulated specifically for marsupials.

To further simulate the environment of the pouch, we must keep the environment calm. Lights are dimmed and voices are kept low. Young joeys can be prone to stress, so we try to take tender, empathetic care at all times. We disturbed Tinka only at bottle-feeding times, which took place every three hours around the clock for weeks. We tenderly bathed her sensitive skin, applied lotion, and monitored the incubator environment carefully.

Tinka soon learned to communicate with us with a series of soft vocalizations and body gestures. A miniscule hiss meant that she was not pleased with our cautious labors, and a shove with her miniscule hands told us she had had enough formula. We soon found out that for one so small, Tinka has a lot of personality and an opinion on every subject!

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Little Guenon and Mother.

Note: Janet will send us another post describing Tinka’s development. In the meantime, we have a video of Tinka, now 7 1/2 months old, if you would like a “sneak peek.”

Update: Ten new pouches for Tinka have been purchased! Thank you to all who contributed on our Wish List!


Zoo Hospital: A Panda Patient

Gao Gao

Hey, Hospital Keepers!  Guess who’s coming to spend the night?

Recently, we had a special overnight guest at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Gao Gao, one of our giant Pandas, took a routine “trip to the dentist,” and then had a sleepover with us. This visit involved coordination and communication between many parties: panda keepers, hospital staff, security officers, and construction crews.

Construction crews? Yep. Panda Canyon is going through quite the transformation. The Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department was instrumental in facilitating completion of a major phase in the Panda Trek project. By allowing Gao Gao to remain at the hospital following his scheduled procedure, panda keepers were able to use remote holding areas in the Giant Panda Research Station to house the remaining pandas as far away as possible from the impact of the construction activities.

To safely transport him to the hospital, Gao was injected with an anaesthetic while resting comfortably in his bedroom. Once he was sound asleep, Security Department staff cleared the way, and Gao was whizzed up the hill to the hospital. During a routine exam to assess his overall dental health, Gao received a full dental exam and cleaning. But when an animal is on the table, especially a panda, everything is checked. Head to toe, or in his case, nose to tail! These exams provide great opportunities to follow up on health conditions and to monitor changes that might have popped up over time. Measurements were recorded; radiographs were taken; eyes, ears, and other things were investigated; and nails were buffed…really!

Gao Gao’s keepers came up during his exam to check on the patient, of course, but more importantly to bring up some familiar items and set up his “home away from home.” During his short stay at the hospital, Gao had one inside room and one outside room, along with a tunnel leading to his transport crate. Once his exam was over and our sleepy VIP (Very Important Panda) was awake enough and ready to investigate his overnight accommodations, I gave him access to leave his crate and explore his new space.

Would the red carpet treatment meet his standards? Would he shift back in to his transport crate so he could go home tomorrow? Would he be comfortable enough to take his medicated biscuits and other treats from me? Would he settle in well enough to eat his dinner and get a good night’s sleep? I am happy to answer with a resounding YES to all the above.

Upon release Gao didn’t do too much exploring; he just walked out of his crate like a pro, down the tunnel, took one slow, sauntering lap around the outdoor room, glancing at and smelling things half-heartedly before entering the indoor room, turning around and plopping down in the doorway with his head resting on the threshold. Panda keepers would call to check in, and I’d report that other than “pouting” a little bit, Gao was doing just fine.

Our “house guest” was very well-behaved considering the eventful day he had and the crowd of admirers he drew into the hospital compound. “Panda” was whispered more than once, and I was reminded of the spell that was cast over me when I worked with these magical creatures years ago as a keeper. Maybe it was nostalgia on my part, or maybe he did remember me a little, or maybe he is just a really well-trained panda, but Gao Gao got up and came right over when I called him and was content to sit in his crate and let me hand-feed him.

Once dinner was over, and I started closing up shop, Gao knew it was time to go to bed. He slowly made his way back to his bedroom, curled up in his big pile of shavings and hay, and went to sleep. The next morning, Gao peeked his head out when I greeted him and was soon “reminding” me that he hadn’t had his breakfast yet. “Excuse me, lady. What kind of establishment is this?” I’ll have you know that we start our day at 6:30 a.m., not the usual 6 a.m. of his keepers, so according to him we were already behind schedule! Please forgive us, Mr. Panda, sir.

After he had eaten his breakfast, and once it was confirmed that the construction was done, Gao was called in to his crate and rewarded with some treats and love from his keepers. The crate doors were closed, and after everything was secured we wheeled him onto the back of a truck. Gao knew it was time to head home; he was ready and waiting patiently. But as the truck was pulling away, Gao was looking out the back watching us wave at him. As he rounded the corner to go down the hill and back to his home, Gao moved his head closer to the bars as if to say to his keepers, “Home, James” and to us “Thanks for your Hospital-ity!”

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


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.


Our Oldest Flamingo Female

30 Black Left.

In my last post (Happy Birthday, Flamingos!), I mentioned that our oldest female Caribbean flamingo, 30 Black Left, has a unique story. (Remember, we refer to the flamingos by their ID band’s number, color, and placement on the leg.) She hatched right here at the San Diego Zoo on June 23, 1959, making her 52 years old. Her reproductive history is a little unclear prior to 2005, but I can tell you something that makes her extra special, besides being the oldest female—almost every year she lays the first egg of the season!  The exceptions are in 2007, when she laid the third egg of the season (but it was the first to hatch a chick that year!), and in 2008, and I’ll tell you why in just a bit.


Since 2005, she has parented six chicks with the same male (26 White Right). This male is only 19 years old; he hatched at SeaWorld San Diego on June 1, 1992, and came to us in 1994. As with the oldest male in our flock (4 Green Right), they have one offspring who was hand raised and is currently residing in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle. If you participate in our Backstage Pass adventure and get to hand feed the flamingos, look for 246 White Right; he is their son, hatched in 2009. 30 Black Left and her mate are also internationally represented, having both their chicks from 2006 and 2007 shipped to the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad in early March. Currently, they are incubating their second egg of the season. 30 Black Left laid the first egg of the season again this year, but it was not viable. The egg they are incubating now is due to hatch between July 7 and July 11. Fingers crossed that this one will hatch!

Now, why she wasn’t with 26 White Right in 2008? Early February of that year, the entire flock was moved to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine while we had some exhibit maintenance done. During that hospital stay, 26 White Right sustained an injury to his trachea that would require surgery, a tracheal resection. Having a world-class veterinary staff, we were not worried. However, this meant that he would have to stay at the hospital and recover while the rest of the flock returned to their newly renovated exhibit.

30 Black Left holds her own with the kids!

With breeding season quickly approaching, I became nervous that he would not be back in time for the pair to have their “first egg of the season!” All the while, a young male not even three years old started showing interest in 30 Black Left. Surprisingly, she did not refuse his advances. Then again, how could she have realized that her beloved mate would return? As far as she knew, he was gone.  And even though flamingos are usually monogamous, if something happens to their mate, they will quickly form a new bond so as to not miss a breeding opportunity. I was saddened by what was happening, but had not lost hope. 26 White Right returned to the exhibit on April 1, 2008—just 12 days after his surgery! After his release, I was sure that 30 Black Left would break the bond with the young male and return to her old mate. But wait—she didn’t even seem to recognize him!

Was his vocalization different due to the surgery and that was why she didn’t seem to know who he was? She ended up laying the second egg of the season soon thereafter; it was infertile, likely the result of the male being so young. Flamingos typically reach reproductive maturity between three and five years of age, and it usually takes a few tries before they are successful. Without any other choice, and in order to not miss a breeding opportunity, 26 White Right bonded with a new female. They had an egg together, but it did not hatch. It seemed that the bond between 30 Black Left and 26 White Right was broken forever, and this broke my heart—a pair I had seen so tightly bonded since I started working with the flock in 2006 was no more.

When the breeding season ended in 2008, since neither newly bonded pair had hatched an egg, they were free to roam about the exhibit since they did not have chick-rearing responsibilities. I started noticing that 30 Black Left and 26 White Right were spending time together again. With each day that passed, their bond seemed to get stronger until they appeared to be back to their old behaviors; they were almost never apart. During the breeding season of 2009, they were definitely back together again, and she laid the first egg of the season. I was so thrilled! How amazing is nature? And how awesome to have witnessed the strength of a bond between two very special birds?! They’ve been inseparable ever since.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


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.


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.