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?
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.