Love in the time of a pandemic

Yvette Kemp

The San Diego Zoo’s hospital has cared for animals since it began operating in April of 1927. Many things have changed since then. However the Animal Health Department’s mission continues to be the same: to use our scientific skills and knowledge to benefit the health and well-being of captive and free-ranging wildlife.

With a team of veterinarians, registered veterinary technicians (RVT), hospital and neonatal animal care specialists, Disease Investigations team, wildlife diseases and clinical lab technicians, the 3,700 animals that call the zoo home keep the hospital quite busy with daily health checks and procedures.

And, if you were wondering if the animals are still keeping their medical appointments during this pandemic, I can tell you… yes, they are!

Our zoo hospital team consists of 7 veterinarians, 6 RVTs and 4 animal care specialists. On any given day, there could be several vets working clinical cases and another vet in charge of “house calls.” Besides the vets, there can be anywhere between 3 to 5 vet techs and animal care specialists working that day.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic, our schedules have changed to make sure that we are following guidelines to keep people and animals safe. We have divided into 2 teams: Team A & Team B, with each team consisting of 3 vets, 3 RVTs, and 2 animal care specialists. Team A covers the beginning of the week while Team B covers the backside of the week and we alternate working on Wednesdays. 

Since the zoo is closed and travel is at a standstill, even for animals moving from one facility to another, we are taking this time to catch up on wellness exams and other procedures that are vital to each animal’s well-being. We have several patients that are housed at the hospital for longer-term treatments, while others are coming up to the hospital for their scheduled appointments.

We thought it would be nice to share how our days have looked since working this new format during these extraordinary times. Throughout the next few weeks, I will share a hospital story so that you can get a glimpse of animal care during COVID times.

Let’s start our story with Abigail. Abigail is a 114-year-old Galápagos tortoise who had a medical procedure and started her treatment right as we closed the zoo due to the pandemic. Abigail is at the hospital because a large mass was found in front of her rear left leg, which has since been removed. Because the site is a bit large, located on her underside, and needs daily cleansing, it was decided to have her stay in one of our hospital “suites.”

Every day, part of Abigail’s medical regiment includes flushing the site and exercising in the hospital compound. Abigail has been a trooper about her daily flushings with the RVT, especially when one of the hospital animal care specialists places a large pile of mixed greens, carrots, pellets, and watermelon in front of her! Then once a week, Abigail has an appointment with one of our veterinarians to check the wound site and make any adjustments that may be needed to help the healing process.

I bet you are wondering, how does one check the undercarriage of a Galápagos tortoise!?

It is not easy, but we have devised a few tools that help us a bit. Many years ago, we designed what we call “the spider” which helps us lift large animals like Galápagos tortoises so that we can get them off the ground and even look underneath them. Think of a car on a lift… now imagine that car is a Galápagos tortoise! Then imagine the veterinarian and other members of the team working under that is a pretty funny sight for sure.

But thanks to the care Abigail has been receiving, her mass is gone, and the wound site area is decreasing in size. How long will we have to do this you ask? Well, remember, tortoises are a bit slow….

Yvette Kemp is an Animal Care Supervisor at San Diego Zoo Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine.