Like going to the doctor to get a shot? Do you get queasy when you have to have your blood drawn? What about a visit to the dentist; how does that make you feel? Most humans don’t love visits to the doctor, but what about our animals at the zoo? Zookeepers at Tanganyika are working to make visits from the doctor more positive by training the animals to participate in their care.
Previously, we’ve trained mandrills to accept injections, rhinos to allow ultrasounds, and saki monkeys to go in to a crate willingly. This last month we had two big medical checks that we needed to accomplish: X-rays on our Asian small-clawed otters and an ultrasound on our female okapi.
How to look at otter kidneys
Asian small-clawed otters are known to develop kidney stones and other renal issues. As a result, it’s important to do routine checks of their kidneys and bladder to watch for issues and address them early. Most of the time, zoos have to put the otters under anesthesia in order to get the x-rays they need. While anesthesia medications continue to advance, complications from anesthesia are always a risk.
At Tanganyika, the Trouble Maker’s Cove team thought they might be able to accomplish this voluntarily with our three ambassador small-clawed otters. Training this as a voluntary behavior would reduce stress on the animals and eliminate any risk involved with anesthesia. However, our otter boys are incredibly curious, so training a behavior that would ultimately involve novel objects (the x-ray equipment) and people (our vet and techs) would be a challenge.
First, they had to train the otters to roll over and hold position on their back. Then the trainers introduced a stack of cardboard to simulate the x-ray plates. Eventually when the otters were consistently rolling over on the make-shift plates, they used various objects from cardboard boxes, broom sticks, and trash cans to act as the x-ray machine. When you can’t borrow an x-ray machine for daily training sessions, you have to get creative!
When the day came, the set up was a little different than expected. By then, the otters were so used to changes in the environment that they figured out what was expected of them quickly and did a great job of getting in to position. Our team is so excited that Shrimp, Wonton, and Wasabi are able to participate in their care through voluntary behaviors!
Okapi Ultrasound | Is there a baby in there?
Moyo, our female okapi, and Amaranta, our male, have been spending some days (and nights) together and we’re all hopeful for an okapi calf. In order to be sure we’re prepared for an offspring, the training team worked to desensitize Moyo to an abdominal ultrasound.
Just like the otter boys and their x-rays, anesthesia can be used to knock okapi down for medical procedures. But, just like with the otters, those anesthesia drugs come with risks – especially for larger hoofstock like okapi that may injure themselves when coming out of anesthesia. And of course, if Moyo is carrying a calf, we want to do everything possible to ensure that she delivers a healthy baby.
The training team has already worked with Moyo on other behaviors and knew that, in general, as long as she has food, she’s pretty content. However, if you’ve ever had an ultrasound yourself, you know that they can be a little uncomfortable, so the team wanted to make sure that Moyo was prepared.
They used radios to simulate an ultrasound wand and had multiple people stand in as the “vet”. Several of our “vet” stand-ins moved the “wand” all over her abdominal area and the insides of her back legs – again, if you’ve had an ultrasound, you know that wand gets moved all over the place!
The day of the actual ultrasound, Moyo had built enough trust with her trainers that the procedure was a piece of cake. Moyo happily munched on food from her diet while the veterinarian manipulated the probe to get a good look inside. While we didn’t see any baby yet, we’re hopeful that we will soon! (Mental note: time to pipe some Marvin Gaye music into the barn overnight)
Some people might not think about the skills that are required to provide amazing care to our animals, but we hope to continue to provide you with insight in to the daily lives our keepers and animals.
If you would like to learn more about the otters or okapis of Tanganyika Wildlife Park, you can join one of our Wildly Different Experiences where you go behind the scenes with these astonishing creatures to see and learn about them up-close with a keeper!
About the Author: LynnLee is our Chief of Connections here at Tanganyika. That means she’s responsible for any time guests and animals interact, which at TWP is ALOT of connections. She believes that having up close interactions with animals is the only way to save the world. You’ve got to touch the heart to teach the mind.