Zoo Tales: Modern Technology Offers Zoos Better Animal Care
At the North Carolina Zoo, as in other animal facilities across the nation, modern medical technology is enabling veterinarians to treat animals in ways never before imagined.
In today's world of medical specialists and their vast array of medicines and equipment, perhaps no doctor has a more diverse or challenging roll than the zoo veterinarian. While human doctors deal with only one species, the zoo doctor cares for hundreds of different creatures -- from a four-ton adult elephant to a hummingbird that weighs less than an ounce.
If nothing else, the job is diverse. But luckily, zoo vets now have at their disposal a host of new high-tech treatments and examination techniques that were unheard of in animal medicine and care just a few years ago.
An example of this at the N.C. Zoo occurred recently when zoo staff members transported an adult female gorilla to the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh to receive a CAT scan.
"The female gorilla had a tumor in her vagina called a squamous-cell carcinoma," said Dr. Mike Loomis, chief veterinarian at the N.C. Zoo. "Unfortunately, because of the location, it isn't an operable tumor, so we wanted to evaluate the tumor, see if this particular tumor was a candidate for radiation therapy and then proceed."
Loomis realized that a CAT scan was necessary and arranged to take the gorilla to the veterinary school at N.C. State in Raleigh.
Once in Raleigh, the vet staff anesthetized and intubated the gorilla and then put in an IV catheter. At the veterinary school, the gorilla underwent a CAT scan that showed Loomis and his staff that the tumor was much larger than expected.
"At that point, radiation treatment was really our only choice," Loomis said. "We got good response from the tumor reduction and now feel that we have given her a number of good years of quality life."
In an effort to test alternative forms of medical care for its exotic animals, the N.C. Zoo's vet staff brought in a certified veterinary acupuncturist, who successfully treated two aging patas monkeys. For the zoo, the acupuncture treatment was an area of research that had never been previously used.
Even high-tech communication gets into the act by allowing consultation via the Internet with veterinarians and specialists across the country while animals are still on the X-ray table.
Medical devices, once used only for humans, are now being used on animals. At the zoo, an infusion pump was placed on an antelope suffering from an infection. Ordinarily, in order to give intravenous antibiotics, vets would have to actually catch the animal numerous times to administer its doses of medicine.
Catching animals is always risky, with an increased chance of injuring the animal or having it injure itself. Also, when an animal must be anesthetized for a procedure, it adds to the complexity since there is always a certain amount of risk involved in anesthesia.
"By using an infusion pump, we were able to load the pump with five days worth of antibiotics, calculate the total dose that the animal needs over that period and then infuse the antibiotics intravenously at a constant rate for that five-day duration," explained Loomis. "That allows us to only have to get our hands on the animal once every five days to treat the infection."
The field of zoo medicine is a rapidly evolving science that more and more has begun to rely on treatments and techniques used previously only on humans. Using early detection and cutting-edge treatments, facilities like the N.C. Zoo ensure quality health care for their animal collections.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
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