S.F. Zoo vets treat snow leopards, other animals

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By Denis Cuff
Contra Costa Times

Article Launched:05/21/2007 03:03:33 AM PDT

SAN FRANCISCO — It was test day for the extremely rare snow leopard.

Zookeeper Barb Palmer had prepared her for months, feeding her chicken scraps as a reward for learning to become a cooperative patient.

Palmer jammed a syringe of anesthesia through a fence enclosure into the haunches of Ming Wah, the leopard, who had positioned herself to accept a hand injection to avoid the trauma of being shot by a dart gun.

The big cat nodded off like a kitten, ready for her physical exam.

Her keepers had applied caution and cleverness — two hallmarks of zoo medicine — to come up with a kinder, gentler and healthier way to treat one of the 235 species of animals at the San Francisco Zoo.

“You can’t pull a book on the shelf about many of these exotic animals because no one has written one,” said Jacqueline Jencek, one of two veterinarians at the zoo.

“We are always extrapolating a lot, and doing what we call MacGyvering,” Jencek said in reference to the television show about a secret agent who improvises to get out of jams.

“You’re in the field and you don’t have exactly what you need. So you pull it together with chewing gum and duct tape. And nine times out of 10, it works pretty well.”

Makeshift tools

As Ming Wah, the 75-pound female leopard, slept in an enclosure, Jencek and three other zoo workers monitored her breathing with a face mask fashioned out a plastic bleach bottle.

Commercially sold masks do not fit the muzzle of this high-mountain, Central Asian leopard, so zoo crews made one that would.

The team plugged a catheter into the cat, took several blood samples, and loaded her long, sleek frame onto a motorized cart for the short ride to the zoo veterinary exam room.

The big cat with thick hair sprawled over the exam table as a team of zoo workers arranged and rearranged her body to perform x-rays, dental checks and a variety of tests to yield baseline medical information.

Exams like this are an important part of zoo care, especially for an elusive leopard species that numbers perhaps 4,000 or fewer animals in the high, hard-to-reach Himalayas and other mountains. The zoo has bred snow leopards for decades.

But the exams are given every few years, not annually, because of they require lots of human labor, and the anesthesia poses some risk to the animals.

The San Francisco Zoo has a new program aimed at training animals to position themselves next to fences or other key spots so they can take anesthesia by hand injection.

Animal keepers also hope to get more animals to let them take blood or saliva samples, or receive skin or other examinations.

“Being shot with a dart is very stressful for the animals. Any time they see zoo staff with a dart gun, they get agitated ” Jencek said. “This is very calming.”

Risky guesswork

When they dart an animal, zookeepers are never sure if the correct dose has been given because the dart may not penetrate skin or may fall out too soon.

Too big a dose of a knock-out drug is bad for an animal. Too small a dose can expose workers to danger when they enter an animal enclosure only to find out a wild animal is not really snoozing.

For Ming Wah’s exam, workers were confident the cat, which is able to take prey three times its size in the wild, got the right dose because the injection was delivered by hand.

It took plenty of training and chicken rewards before Palmer, the cat keeper, had Ming Wah prepared for hand injections.

Palmer started out rewarding the cat for lying still, then for being touched by a small stick and eventually with a syringe.

The cat keeper’s participation was essential because Ming Wah, 15, runs and scowls when she spots zoo veterinarians coming to visit.

“She’s an amazing animal,” said Palmer, who twice has traveled to mountains in Central Asia to help with snow leopard surveys. “They are rarely seen. That’s why it’s hard to get an accurate count on how many there are in the wild.”

Training rhinos

At the San Francisco Zoo, some animal keepers have informally trained some animals for years to cooperate with exams.

Now the zoo is trying to formalize the program to involve all keepers and as many animals as possible, Jencek said.

“Our goal is to pretty much to get all the animals trained so we can weigh them and prepare them for hand injections,” she said.

Some animals probably never will cooperate. Zebras, fast and flighty animals that rely on speed to flee predators, are poor candidates to stand still for a medical procedure, Jencek said.

A 3-ton Indian rhino named Gauhati, however, is an affable patient even though he is too heavy for any weighing scale at the zoo.

Trainers have used melon and carrot treats to train Gauhati to stand still against a strong fence enclosure so zoo staff members on the other side can examine his skin and take blood samples from his ear.

Gauhati chomped amiably on melons from a food bucket one afternoon as Jencek climbed up a stool to reach the rhino’s ear, the most widely accepted place to take blood samples.

Another rhino at the zoo refused to tolerate ear inspections.

Jencek and the rhino keepers discovered by trial and error that the behemoth did not mind if blood was taken from its tail.

“If you had a book on rhinos, it wouldn’t tell you to take blood from the tail,” Jencek said. “Each animal you care for has its individual preferences. We are always learning about these differences in the animals we care for here.”

Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or dcuff@cctimes.com.


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