zoo hospital


A Knee Makeover for Sweet Otter

Does Sweet Otter deserve her name?

Does Sweet Otter deserve her name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zoo Hospital: 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: 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.


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.