DALLAS — Just like any medical facility, this hospital in Oak Cliff is equipped to serve patients of all shapes and sizes. But this one can handle all kinds of species, too.
The Dallas Morning News reported the Dallas Zoo’s hospital is a lot like its human counterparts in other ways. The three veterinarians, five certified vet techs and three keepers provide everything from emergency procedures to routine checkups.
The A.H. Meadows Animal Care Facility was built in 1999 but still looks new, no easy feat considering its patients don’t just act like animals — they actually are animals.
Two tables — one large and one smaller — in a sterile surgical room can easily accommodate a C-section on a monkey, or a procedure on any creature up to 500 pounds. A larger animal, such as a hippo or elephant, would be treated in the barn, said Dr. Christopher Bonar, the zoo’s director of animal health.
There are tiny tubes used to intubate small reptiles, and much, much larger ones for the bigger beasts. Sometimes, the zoo has to have equipment custom-made or the vets MacGyver it, depending on the need.
“A lot of equipment is specifically designed for very large and very small size,” Bonar said. “Little birds that might weigh 35 grams … to something that weighs 30,000 pounds. That’s part of the fun and part of the challenge.”
There’s a pharmacy for filling prescriptions — on a recent day snake antibiotics were prepared — and wards for animals to recover under the careful watch of hospital staff. Animals new to the zoo also spend a month in quarantine at the hospital before they are introduced to their habitats.
At the hospital, many of the procedures and exams are routine, but some are anything but and require outside experts. In rare cases, those outside experts are doctors who treat human patients.
In March 2015, gorilla keepers noticed something was wrong with Subira, a Western lowland gorilla. He wasn’t acting like his usual self, had severe diarrhea and had little to no appetite.
“The keepers have to be my eyes and my ears,” Bonar said. “And they have to be the ones who will notice subtle changes. … Often, the first sign of illness is very nonspecific and subtle, but very important.”
After three days and medication, Subira had not improved and was anesthetized and examined. By March 12, he still did not appear to be getting better and was rushed into the hospital on a stretcher.
Worried Subira would be too weak to undergo surgery, Dr. Robert M. Jacobson, a colorectal surgeon with North Texas Colon & Rectal Associates, suggested a colonoscopy. It was Jacobson’s first time to advise about a gorilla’s care.
The X-rays revealed what Jacobson said was colitis, an inflammation in the colon, and the doctor suggested for the gorilla what he had suggested before for human patients: A food supplement that helps build up the immune system and stabilize the condition.
“I wasn’t sure he was going to make it,” Jacobson said.
Lying on the table under the operating lights, it was easy to see the similarities between humans and gorillas. Subira rested his creased hands, complete with dirty fingers, above his head and dozed as the hospital staff and doctors buzzed around.
“It was just like a human but obviously a different intriguing situation,” Jacobson said. “Of course, you can’t talk to them, so you can’t get a history.”
Close to two weeks later, Subira was making progress, albeit slowly, but then took a turn for the worse.
He was taken to a local veterinary specialty clinic for a CT scan that revealed additional issues, including low-grade pneumonia, and the need for a blood transfusion. The next day, March 28, another gorilla from the zoo’s troop was anesthetized to donate for the sickly gorilla’s transfusion.
Another physician for humans was called in. Dr. Robert Lyon of Dallas Anesthesiology Associates was present throughout the treatments and advised on sedation.
Subira had lost so much weight and was so sick that he barely moved, unlike the feisty, active gorillas Lyon had previously worked with.
“Most of the gorillas, they’ll let you know they’re not happy to see you,” Lyon said. “He just kind of laid there. He could barely pick up his head.”
Though gorillas and humans have similar anatomies and gene structures, there are critical differences that care providers have to take into account. Gorilla skin is tougher, and their veins are bigger. It’s also better to keep a gorilla, which has a shorter trachea than a human, on its side to be intubated because it makes it easier for the animal to breathe, Lyon said.
Subira’s recovery was rocky and slow. He was picky with food, and keepers had to disguise his medications to get him to take them.
“Our keeper staff is really adept at sneaking medicines into foods and getting them into animals,” animal health director Bonar said. “There was a period of time where there were certain things we had to give him by injection because that was the only route.”
A month later, staffers noticed a swelling on his left arm and consulted with another human doctor, extremity surgeon Dr. Beau Fredricks. Thinking it could be staph, they started treatment and Subira continued a slow recovery until his pneumonia was under control.
Finally, in May, after weeks of touch-and-go improvements and round-the-
clock attention from hospital staff, Subira began eating somewhat normally. Almost two months later, on July 7, he had a final exam and was returned to the gorilla building.
Despite multiple tests, the zoo was never able to determine what triggered the illness. But he’s back to himself.
While sick, the gorilla lost about 90 pounds, dropping to 289. Today, he weighs nearly 450 pounds and has been put on a diet.
Over Christmas break, Lyon and his children paid a visit to Subira at the zoo.
Lyon pointed the primate out and said, “That’s the gorilla Daddy took care of.”
“He was just lounging on his back, couldn’t be happier,” the doctor said.
The zoo hospital staff is prepared to provide care for all stages of its animals’ lives.
After an animal dies, it’s taken for a post-mortem evaluation. The staff performs a necropsy to determine the cause of death and takes tissue samples before the animal is cremated.
Bonar said the zoo’s policies were designed to teach keepers and vets more about how an animal lived and died and to contribute to preventive medicine.
“We would rather prevent disease than treat it, and knowing why animals die is what helps us know how to better keep them alive,” he said.
Sometimes the zoo donates skeletons or tissue to museums and universities. When the zoo’s beloved elephant Mama died at 45 in May 2015, her skeleton was sent to the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma. Her precious tusks are in storage at another location.
“We try to make everything we can available to researchers and museums and all because it’s not like 100 years ago, when they wanted a specimen for a museum they’d go out and shoot one and stuff it,” Bonar said. “We’re very fortunate to have access to a lot of interesting anatomic material and make good use of it.”
The findings may also help improve the lives for the next generation of animals the zoo welcomes.
On a Tuesday in January, Chispa the Tamandua was at the hospital for an ultrasound.
The lesser anteater, one of the animals the zoo uses in outreach programs, was soon to be a mother. After one pregnancy where the baby was stillborn, zoo staffers wanted to make sure everything was progressing well with her pregnancy because breeding of the species is rare in human care.
The zoo believes Chispa became pregnant in mid-September, and with a gestation period of about 130 to 190 days, she was due soon.
This was a day Chispa had been training for. Staffers had been working with the mother-to-be to get her comfortable enough to stand up tall while an object scanned her stomach and the vet examined her.
In one hand, animal outreach specialist Erin Jackson held half an avocado and Chispa stood on her hind legs and slurped the treat as Bonar ran a sonogram wand across the animal’s belly.
As the exam went on, Bonar pointed out the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor while Chispa happily finished the avocado and worked her way to the bottom of a container of peach baby food with her foot-long tongue.
Everything checked out fine.
The new father moved to the Dallas Zoo two years ago and was paired with Chispa as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan.
Throughout the tamandua’s ultrasound, Mary the sheep bleated away in another part of the hospital where she was being monitored because she’d been losing weight.
Unless an animal is having trouble with a birth, zoo staffers don’t intervene, so all that was left for them to do was wait.
When keepers arrived at work on the morning of Feb. 25, Chispa had given birth to her baby, the zoo’s first.
The baby, whose gender has not been determined yet, weighed 386 grams — slightly less than a pound.
After months of waiting, the zoo now has another patient — and a new baby — to fawn over.