veterinary staff


Condor Cam Chick’s First Health Exam


The Condor Cam chick is currently about the size of a bowling ball!


On Tuesday, May 26, our California condor chick received its first health exam. We normally conduct this exam at around 45 days of age. The goal was to obtain a blood sample for our labs, administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, inject a microchip for identification, and weigh the chick.

The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, the parents—father Sisquoc and mother Shatash—don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents will do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen. Shift pens are used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. Other animals at the Safari Park that are moved with shift pens include lions, gorillas, bighorn sheep, and others. That’s why you never see any keepers in the exhibits at the same time with these animals. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Sisquoc and Shatash are very comfortable entering this spot for every meal. On the day of the exam, we shifted Sisquoc into the pen and kept him there until after the health check was completed. From the shift pen, he cannot see the nest area so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.

Shatash was not shifted, but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Shatash out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 46-day-old chick had ever seen a person, and it was understandably nervous and defensive—hissing and lunging at the intruder. Yet once under the cover of the towel, the chick could not see and calmed down. It was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinary staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample will be sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research can use the sample to determine if the chick is male or female.

Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. West Nile virus is disease that originated in Africa and was accidentally introduced to North America by humans. North American animals, including condors, usually don’t have a natural immune response to West Nile Virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

Then a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. This chip is a form of identification, the same kind you can get for your dog or cat at the veterinarian.

The veterinarian then did a quick health assessment, checking the chick’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen.

Lastly, we weighed the chick to make sure it was growing on schedule.

While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took approximately 16 minutes.

Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Shatash was allowed to approach and check on her baby. As previously mentioned, the chick was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that the chick was so nervous, it is actually good that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the young condor to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested in and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.

For several minutes, the chick showed defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Shatash slowly approached her chick and calmly preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. After only about two minutes, the chick was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Shatash. With everyone appearing calmer, Sisquoc was let out of his shift pen. Approximately five minutes later, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and then returned to the shift pen to eat some more. Afterwards, he went back to the nest and fed the chick.

So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. Hopefully, the blood work will show that the chick is healthy. The veterinarian’s initial inspection looked great; the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs and wings were solid, and vitality was very strong. The chick weighed  7 pounds (3.16 kilograms) and was approximately the size of a bowling ball. We hope to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab soon. When we do, we’ll let you know if the chick is a male or a female.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, California Condor Chick: 30 to 45 days of Age.


Helping Harvey

Harvey eyes one of his trainers.

Harvey is one of the beloved animals in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Wildlife Education Department. He is a hyacinth macaw who has been with us for 10 years, and he is estimated to be approximately 36 years old. Harvey serves as an animal ambassador, teaching people about macaws and their plight for existence.

In April, Harvey’s trainers noticed that he was favoring his right leg. He was not using it as much as his left leg when he would walk or climb. Harvey was brought to the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Clinic for an exam and evaluation. We anesthetized Harvey, performed an exam, drew a blood sample, and took radiographs of his right leg. There were no obvious abnormalities found, so it was felt that he may have sprained or strained his leg. He was sent back to his keepers for cage rest and anti-inflammatory medication.

The following month, Harvey stopped using his right foot to perch. His appetite and attitude were normal. He was returned to the clinic for a recheck exam and radiographs. Upon exam, Harvey’s right leg had a decreased range of motion compared to his exam the previous month, a mass was palpated within his right thigh, and his radiographs revealed some soft-tissue swelling in the area. The veterinarian then aspirated the swelling, with a syringe and needle, and submitted the sample to our laboratory for evaluation.

The report was less than hopeful. The results came back as “malignant sarcoma,” a form of cancer. Many discussions followed between our veterinary staff, Harvey’s trainers, and curatorial staff. Harvey’s options ranged from surgical amputation of his leg to multiple radiation treatments. We weren’t even sure the radiation treatments would work on a macaw!

An anesthetized Harvey receives radiation treatment at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Sorrento Valley.

In the meantime, our veterinary staff consulted with outside colleagues for help with Harvey’s case. The oncology department at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Sorrento Valley was contacted and was willing to help with radiation treatments, as we do not have that capability here at the Safari Park. Harvey’s caretakers ultimately decided to try the radiation treatments. His first exam would entail having a CT scan done and a more definitive biopsy. From these results, we would be able to get a better sense of his prognosis and develop an optimal plan for treatment.

For four weeks, we transported Harvey to the Veterinary Specialty Hospital for radiation treatments and took measurements of the leg mass so that we would be aware if it changed in size. He did not seem to experience any side effects from the treatment except for some dry skin. Over the course of his treatment, Harvey went from not using his foot at all to placing his foot back on his perch and being able to use his right foot to pick up a nut!

We are now three months post-treatment. While we do not know how long these results will last, Harvey’s keepers report that he is continuing to do well and has a great attitude and appetite. His recent recheck exam revealed that the mass in his right leg has stabilized and has not grown in size.

Carrie Cramer is a senior registered veterinary technician at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


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.


Gorilla Exam Takes a Village

It takes teamwork to provide a gorilla with the best of care.

As one might imagine, getting a 300-pound (136-kilogram) western gorilla from her exhibit to the hospital for multiple procedures during one examination takes more than a little effort. Add to that the introduction of a new procedure for transporting said gorilla, and you are sure to need cooperation and assistance from a lot of people. You could say it takes a village! Fortunately for gorilla Kamilah, our amazing team of San Diego Zoo Safari Park staff (animal care, construction and maintenance, garage, and veterinary staff) along with consulting human medicine specialists from University of California, San Diego, and some generous donors, combined their time, money, and expertise to make this most recent gorilla exam at the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center (HVMC) the safest and most efficient one yet.

Kamilah was scheduled for a thorough examination at HVMC. To minimize the number of times she has to be put under anesthesia, staff decided to opportunistically give her a full battery of tests and other routine check-ups. Kamilah would receive a physical exam, echocardiogram, abdominal ultrasound, digital radiographs, and dental exam; have blood drawn for complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry evaluation; and finally, vaccinations and boosters. In an effort to maximize the safety and productiveness of the procedures, Safari Park staff from various departments combined efforts and put the wheels of cooperation in motion.

It is always the goal of our veterinary team to keep time under anesthesia to a minimum for the safety of the animal(s) in their care. With that in mind, this group of medical professionals would need to perform their portions of the examination in a well-orchestrated symphony of precision and timing. The Park’s Mammal Department modified the gorilla bedroom area, thanks to the generosity of donors; this was a crucial part of the new transport procedure being initiated with Kamilah’s visit to the hospital and had a direct effect on the outcome of Kamilah’s examination. Gorilla keepers worked with the entire troop, including Kamilah, teaching them to become familiar with their customized transport enclosure. By encouraging them to pass through it as part of their morning routine, the troop soon became comfortable with the behavior and began to enter the enclosure willingly. This new technique would eliminate the need to fully anesthetize Kamilah for the trip and allow her to be safely transported while awake and only lightly tranquilized. This alone would reduce anesthesia time by at least 20 minutes.

Kamilah arrives safely at the HVMC.

Park staff created a device that would make it safer and more efficient for keepers to lift Kamilah and her transport enclosure onto the hospital loading dock. An electric-powered, battery-operated winch and cable system was custom built for Kamilah’s delivery to the hospital. Since the transport enclosure is on wheels, it was easy for keepers to back the truck up to the dock, attach the cable to the enclosure, and easily roll it back, using this new, customized piece of equipment. And once the exam was complete and Kamilah was ready to go home, she was placed in the transfer enclosure for her ride back and slowly lowered into the bed of the truck, again using the winch system.

From start to finish, with outstanding teamwork and the implementation of innovative techniques, Kamilah’s exam proved successful, and the time she spent under anesthesia was reduced significantly. A job well done by this group of dedicated “villagers.”

Valerie Stoddard is a senior administrative assistant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Update on “Harry” the Condor.