veterinary staff


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.