Iraqi, U.S. veterinarians partner to help Baghdad zoo animals
March 29, 2010
BAGHDAD -- The call came in to Capt. Curt Degeyter; a 7-month-old male patient was presenting the symptoms of an unknown illness. He was acting sluggish, had limb weakness, tremors and showed signs of getting worse.
No one on location could find a diagnosis. If something was not done soon, the patient - a tiger at the Baghdad zoo - might die.
After receiving the call for help March 24, Degeyter, a doctor of veterinary medicine assigned to 1st Armored Division, U.S. Division-Center, quickly made his own calls to other U.S. Army veterinarians to visit the zoo.
When Degeyter received the call, he said he remembered thinking, "I am a doctor specializing in equine [horse family] medicine. I have never evaluated a tiger."
Degeyter said he found the idea of getting into a cage interesting yet unnerving, but decided it was something he had to do.
Before he could go out and evaluate the tiger, however, he had to conduct some research. He poured over manuals, journals and various web sites to find the correct dosages for sedating a young tiger. "A horse weighs quite a bit more than a tiger cub," he said.
He also knew that there were other veterinary specialists around Victory Base Complex whom he could ask for help, so after making some calls, he found a vet who specializes in working with cats - house cats.
Maj. Matt Takara, commander, 51st Medical Detachment Veterinary Medicine, 248th Medical Detachment Veterinary Services, answered the call.
Takara said he jumped at the chance to work with the large cat. He had worked with house cats on several occasions but this would be something completely different.
Upon arriving at the zoo, Takara and Degeyter joined several Iraqi zoo employees standing by to lend them a hand. Together, the group took time to evaluate all necessary equipment and discuss the current status of the cub.
Degeyter suspected the tiger cub was suffering from a nutrient deficiency, meaning he was not getting the vitamins he needed to stay healthy.
"The zoo started to feed the cub avian vitamins and they saw an improvement," said Degeyter. "The avian vitamins are for birds, of course, but due to the unavailability of other vitamins, the zoo staff had to improvise."
He told the zoo staff to continue this treatment until lab results returned and a clearer diagnosis could be established.
The plan to obtain those results, Degeyter said, was to sedate the animal, draw blood and send a sample to North Carolina State University, a school that has a past relationship with the zoo. Another sample would be tested at VBC.
Together, the zoo workers and the U.S. veterinarians safely tranquilized the tiger cub and prepped him for a blood draw by shaving a small spot on the inside of his leg. The needle entered, blood was drawn and packaged for the long trip back to the United States.
Once the procedure was complete, Takara conducted a head-to-tail inspection of the cub, which included looking inside the tiger's mouth while carefully avoiding the sleeping cat's large teeth.
"I looked at the teeth and gum color, its boney structure, felt its belly, and checked the legs," said Takara. "It is just getting your hands on the entire cat [to] see if you can find anything abnormal."
When finished, they left the tiger to catnap and recover from the experience, but the veterinarians were not done. Another patient was also suspected of being ill; this time, a juvenile female lion.
The group traveled to the lion section of the zoo and found the very large, very ill-tempered patient pacing inside her cage.
Once sedated, the lioness went through the same process that the tiger cub had undergone. Extra care was taken in this case due to her size and the possibility of her awakening and finding a bunch of humans inside her home.
After making the lion comfortable for her recovery, the joint team of animal caregivers shook hands and thanked each other for the help, although this will not be the last time they work together, said Degeyter.
They plan to continue searching for a diagnosis for the animals, and to get together again in the future whenever the need arises.