Wild Sea Turtles Receive Care at Houston Zoo Vet Clinic

On February 26th Houston Zoo wildlife partners at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) brought in several wild sea turtles for medical care.

A wild Kemp’s ridley sea turtle gets an x-ray.
A green sea turtle getting medical care at the Houston Zoo
A green sea turtle getting medical care at the Houston Zoo.

These sea turtles were looked over by the Houston Zoo’s vet team and will be rehabilitated at NOAA’s sea turtle barn in Galveston until they are ready to be released into the wild.

On March 23rd, an additional green sea turtle visited the Zoo’s vet clinic. This turtle had obvious boat wounds and will need plenty of care before it can return to the wild. As the turtle was receiving care, the Zoo’s vet staff noticed that not only did it have a boat wound, but the turtle also had parts of a fishing hook in the front left flipper. Dr. Joe at the Zoo’s clinic removed the hook and provided care to the carapace (shell) before the turtle returned to Galveston for rehabilitation by NOAA staff.

A green sea turtle is checked by Houston Zoo Vet staff
A green sea turtle is checked by Houston Zoo Vet staff
Don’t worry, we don’t use band aids! This one is just Phototshopped in for the photo.

We are just beginning the sea turtle nesting season in Texas. If you happen to see sea turtle tracks, a nesting sea turtle, or an injured/sick/stranded turtle on the beach, please report it to 1-866-TURTLE-5. In addition, if you are fishing and accidentally catch a sea turtle, please also report it to this number! SeaTurtleSticker_outline

Baylor College of Medicine Offers Big Help to Komodo Dragon, Smaug

This piece written by Dipail Pathak, Baylor College of Medicine

Baylor College of Medicine and the Houston Zoo previously have collaborated on researching the elephant herpes virus and are now partnering again to help another zoo resident, a 16-year-old Komodo dragon named Smaug.

Baylor faculty in the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program have been working closely with zoo veterinarians and keepers since November to develop an orthosis to help the 7-foot, 200 pound Komodo dragon use his right foot more proficiently.

“About a year ago, we noticed that Smaug wasn’t using his right, front foot normally and that occasionally he was flipping it underneath and walking on the top of his toes,” said Dr. Lauren Howard, associate veterinarian at the Houston Zoo. “So that started the last year-and-a-half of our diagnostic investigation into what was going on with him. We’re still trying to determine why he’s not holding his foot the right way, but in the meantime our goal is to keep him holding his foot upward so he doesn’t continue to walk on the tops of his toes.”
Howard got in touch with Jared Howell, director of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor, to see if he could help. When Howell got the call from the zoo, it was a huge surprise, but he was eager to assist.

Here you can see Smaug folding his foot under.
Here you can see Smaug folding his foot under.

“When a Komodo dragon picks up its foot, it slides forward and they fire their muscles and they are able to put their palm downward. What happened for Smaug is that he wasn’t able to fire his muscles to pull the foot forward, so as he picked up his shoulder to pull the foot forward, it stayed in the flex position and then he would land on it and roll his wrist underneath every single time he took a step,” said Howell. “He’s over 200 pounds, so that’s a lot of weight going onto that hand.”
Howell and colleagues visited Smaug at the zoo and took pictures and videos of him walking and came up with a plan to develop a rubberized spring-loaded device that would allow Smaug to have a natural range of motion at the wrist while still being able to then have it spring up when he took weight off of it so the palm would fall flat on the ground the way it should.

Howell and colleagues then took two casts of Smaug’s limb and came back to their labs at Baylor where they worked on a prototype of the orthosis. After a few iterations and some fine-tuning, they designed an orthosis that worked well for Smaug. The orthosis is made of urethane laminate, which is a flexible material that has tackiness to it to adhere to the scales and is easy to put on and take off.

Judith puts on Smaug's brace.
Judith puts on Smaug’s brace.

But that wasn’t the end of their work. A short while after he was fitted for the orthosis, Smaug developed an infection in his foot, unrelated to the orthosis, which caused some mild cellulitis and swelling of the fingers. Howell and colleagues developed a second device to hold his foot in place while he healed. This device, made with silicone polymer, is also easy to get on and off and pre-positions the hand to help Smaug walk well. Smaug now has both devices and uses them as needed.

“We’ve noticed a difference in the management of Smaug’s right front foot. One thing we were having trouble with was his toes were starting to get swollen and infected from the trauma from how he was carrying the foot. With this latest brace, we were able to keep the toes straight and they healed up – they stopped getting traumatized, the swelling went down and they weren’t infected anymore. What we’re looking at is a long-term goal of keeping this brace on for four to six to eight months and hoping that over time, it will strengthen his arm and maybe help him keep it in the right position,” said Howard.

Howell notes that there was a learning curve in working with the reptile.

“It’s a bit different. You don’t have human tissue, you have scales, different muscle functions and joints that all move in different ways. All of those things added to the challenge, but it was a great learning experience and a lot of fun,” said Howell, who emphasized it was a collaborative effort of the entire Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor.
Smaug Brace

Colobus Monkey Gets a Second Chance at Sight with Cataract Surgery

This post written by Bailey Cheney of the Houston Zoo Primate Department.

We first realized that Caesar, our geriatric Eastern black and white Colobus monkey, was losing his sight around January of 2013. It started off with one of the keepers realizing that his eyes were a little cloudy. Then we noticed that he was slightly hesitant about moving around his bedroom. A sure sign that his sight was in decline was when one of the keepers noticed him bump into a new bench that had been installed. After that, it seemed that his sight was going downhill at an alarming rate. He would sit in the same spot for a long time. Whenever he moved, he would pat the ground where he walked to feel his way around.

Caesar is the oldest eastern black and white colobus monkey in a zoo at 32 years old. He lives with his mate “Bibi” in an off-exhibit special-care facility where geriatric primates are housed with indoor/outdoor access. Instead of going outside once his sight decreased, he would sit right in the doorway to feel the sunshine and enjoy the breeze all from the comfort and safety of his “old man porch.” He moved around less, understandably, and as time passed, the entire primate staff was growing more concerned about him.

Our veterinarians got in contact with Dr. Nicholas Millichamp of Eye Care for Animals. The clinic is about a forty-five minute drive from the Houston Zoo. The day of the surgery, Caesar was moved into a crate with just enough room to relax and be comfortable. Once sedated, Caesar was given a pre-surgery screening to make sure that he still had functional retinas. Thankfully, he passed that test and the surgery began. During the surgery, Dr. Millichamp dyed the cataracts for better contrast to see what he was working on. He used a very small instrument to scrape, and then suck away, the old cataracts. After removing them, Dr. Millichamp put new lenses into both eyes. During the whole surgery, the doctor used a microscope to be able to closely see what he was doing. This microscope was set up to a camera and a screen so that those observing could see everything that Dr. Millichamp saw.


Once he returned home to the zoo and recovered, the entire primate staff was very anxious to see results. The first time that I realized that he could see was when a piece of zucchini (one of Caesar’s favorites) was rolling off of the feeding tray and Caesar caught it quickly.  We observed him walk right up to his food, and he walked with confidence on the props in his bedrooms.

After a few bumps in the road as his eyes were a little slow to heal, he was finally cleared to go outside. When the door was opened, Bibi immediately went out, but Caesar hesitated. Then, he took a few steps forward and stepped onto the high walkway and followed Bibi over to a ray of sunshine, where he basked delightedly. We saw him enjoying the warm sun, watched birds fly by, and contentedly enjoy his surroundings.

Caesar continues to do amazingly well and it seems to us as if he’s lost ten years off of his 32 years. He vocalizes and displays vigorously in the morning to show the keepers who is boss, and interacts more with Bibi. These are all behaviors he had stopped doing when he was blind. He continues going strong, to the delight of the entire primate staff, and we hope to have much more time with him. We are all very thankful to the veterinary ophthalmologists who donated their time to so improve the quality of our old man’s Caesar’s life!

Caesar the colobus monkey
Caesar the colobus monkey

Cheyenne’s Story: What Happens When a Zoo Animal Gets Sick?

The Houston Zoo is very lucky to have a great veterinary team: a Director, a Manager, 4 Veterinarians, 3 Veterinary Technicians, and a myriad of other important players like zookeepers, purchasing and record-keeping staff. It takes a village to keep our animals healthy! Because of our continued, professional veterinary care at the zoo, the clinic staff’s daily schedule involves  routine health checks and monitoring newborn, chronically ill or geriatric animals. But what happens when an animal becomes acutely ill and needs veterinary attention? And, what special considerations needs to be made to treat an animal as large as an orangutan?
Cheyenne & Vascular Team 6.14

Recently, one of our most beloved animals fell very suddenly ill: Cheyenne, our 42 year old orangutan who has been a devoted mother to four adopted kids. She quite abruptly started refusing food, and more alarmingly, water, and all she wanted to do was lie in her nest. Her most recent adoptee, 3 year old Aurora, was happy and active and thankfully did not seem too worried about her mama, but her keepers and the vet staff were extremely concerned.  So, an action plan was developed and Cheyenne was sedated for a thorough physical exam. Indah, our 10 year old Sumatran orangutan female was selected to babysit Aurora while Cheyenne was away, as the two of them had a mutually friendly relationship already.


Cheyenne’s blood values were not looking good as her kidney function seemed compromised and several other important numbers were severely out of whack. Any number of problems could have been the reason for these aberrant results, and after consulting with a number of human doctors it was decided to do an exploratory abdominal surgery in case she had appendicitis or an internal abscess. Fortunately, neither of these were the case, so she was closed up and other veterinary specialists were consulted. It became obvious that she would need extended supportive care, which for an orangutan is not an easy task. A neonatal team of infusion specialists were called in to put an IV into a vein in Cheyenne’s foot, where she would be less likely to try to pull it out. It was covered by a cast once they successfully got it in, and she was kept partially sedated for her treatment and monitoring period that lasted two weeks. Through this IV lifeline, she received antibiotics, fluids and the sedative that kept her from being too active, while ensconced in a lovingly cushioned bed inside a recovery cage in the orangutan night house. She was watched carefully by the primate staff, who took turns staying overnight with her to make sure that her IV line was running properly and that she was resting comfortably. Keepers would offer her pureed fruits and vegetables via a long-handled spoon, and “milkshake” concoctions with everything from vanilla soy-milk to exotic juices, which she drank through a straw. Every 3 days, she was sedated more fully so that she could have additional blood tests done to check to see if her kidney values were improving.  At this time, her recovery cage was completely cleaned and she was given new bedding of soft hay, blankets and makeshift pillows. It was a long, drawn-out period where all of the staff who loves her rallied around her and did everything possible to maximize her recovery and comfort. And….it worked!

Cheyenne has been off the IV and back in with Aurora for a few weeks now, and is slowly but surely getting her strength back. She began going outside again after a couple of weeks, but only in the early mornings when the heat is not too intense. We feel so grateful for her progress and Aurora is very happy to be back with her mama again.

We can never predict when one of our treasured zoo animals might become ill, but when it happens, there is no more determined set of people than our veterinarians and keepers who try their best to make that animal well again. And, we are very lucky to have them.

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