The patient was rushed to the hospital, less than a quarter-mile from her home, with a neck injury and a puncture wound to her abdomen.
Unable to communicate, she was quickly anesthetized so the scope of her injuries could be determined. Exploratory surgery revealed no intestinal damage and the deep wound was flushed and cleaned. X-rays identified a slight neck fracture, which was immobilized by an improvised splint, because there was nothing standard to fit her tiny neck. She was given antibiotics and painkillers, and was fed through an intravenous tube until she could eat on her own.
Most of the world’s scavengers don’t get this level of care, but the African white-backed vulture and other animals at the Dallas Zoo have access to four full-time veterinarians, a top-flight hospital, and more than a dozen other professionals who provide care and nutrition.
The $3.75 million A.H. Meadows Animal Health Care Facility sits behind the elephant and gorilla habitats in the Wilds of Africa. The hospital, as well as other areas of the Zoo that involve animals and zookeepers, are overseen by Lynn Kramer, D.V.M., vice president of animal operations and welfare. A veterinarian, Kramer follows the progress of animals treated by the hospital staff and consults on special cases.
“This hospital is one of the best,” Kramer said. “It ranks in the top 10 percent of zoo hospitals around the country – and I’ve seen most of them.”
Day-to-day care is led by Christopher J. Bonar, V.M.D., Dipl. A.C.Z.M., director of animal health, who came to the Dallas Zoo and Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park in January 2013. Bonar is involved in all aspects of clinical medicine, surgery, diagnostic imaging, pathology and nutrition, as well as reviews of preventive medicine, quarantine, and anesthesia protocols. He oversees three full-time veterinarians as well as vet technicians, hospital keepers, a hospital record administrator, a certified nutritionist, and the Animal Nutrition Center and nutrition team. And he’s responsible for developing research and publication goals for the department.
Bonar was planning to become a doctor when he attended Harvard University for his undergraduate and master’s degrees in biology, and expected to support his love of zoos and aquariums through philanthropy. But with his father’s encouragement, Bonar followed his passion, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and became part of a select group of zoo veterinarians who have earned board certification from the American College of Zoological Medicine. He works with Jan Raines, D.V.M., and Maren Connolly, D.V.M., to care for more than 2,100 animals (not including invertebrates).
The team makes it a point to keep their calendars clear for a portion of every day to accommodate emergencies, and someone is on duty or on call 24 hours each day. Most of their time is filled with well-patient care: administering tuberculosis tests, performing chest X-rays, updating vaccines, and conducting dental and ophthalmic exams.
Incoming animals, which are quarantined for 30 to 45 days, get physicals and X-rays, and are checked for parasites and viruses. Vets also examine outgoing animals to ensure that they are free of contagious diseases before they leave Dallas.
The veterinarians talk with curators and zookeepers about any unusual animal behavior that may warrant further investigation. For example, if an animal has started limping or is lame, vets may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug (for minor cases) or may immobilize an animal to treat more serious issues.
Recently, the Dallas Zoo team monitored the health of an Aldabra tortoise for almost a year, because it wasn’t eating as much as it had in the past. Keepers and vets couldn’t find an obvious problem, and its large shell and the arrangement of tortoises’ internal organs made ultrasounds, x-rays, and laparoscopic tests ineffective. So the tortoise was taken for a CT scan. Tests revealed a tongue lesion that was repaired with a laser supplied by another veterinary specialist. The tortoise is now eating well.
“Here’s an animal that was 15 years old, but has a very long, long life ahead of him,” Bonar said, referring to the 150-year life span of Aldabra tortoises.
In another instance, the carnivore keepers at Giants of the Savanna noticed that Bonde cheetah wasn’t eating as usual, and they were concerned that he had ingested a foreign object. Raines studied blood and fecal samples and examined the cheetah with an endoscope. When Bonde hadn’t eaten 48 hours later, she administered a barium radiograph and identified an intestinal adhesion, which would have been fatal if not treated. Raines removed the problem, and the cheetah was up and running days later.
The health care and well-being of animals at the Dallas Zoo and the Children’s Aquarium are the primary focus of everyone associated with the A.H. Meadows Animal Health Care Facility, the ANC, and an entire team of zookeepers, staff, volunteers, and supporters. It’s likely that Aldabra tortoise will outlive all of us – and that’s the goal of this team.