The Mane Event

This article originally ran in the Spring 2002 issue of Zoo View, the quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.

A dedicated veterinary team takes advantage of the Zoo’s brand-new Animal Health and Conservation Center to treat a lion’s lameness and unexplained weight loss.

Lionel the African lion. Photo by Tad Motoyama.

The king of the jungle looked anything but at this very moment.

Lionel, a 14-year-old lion who has lived at the Los Angeles Zoo since 1997, lay immobilized and vulnerable on an examination table, the great beast’s muzzle tethered to prevent a breathing tube from falling out. The tube carried a gentle mix of isoflurane and oxygen, just enough to keep the 400-pound member of the order Carnivora peacefully unaware of the team of humans working hurriedly but with focused determination all around him.

The team of veterinarians, keepers, and specialists intently collected evidence as they tried to solve the current medical mystery at hand: What was the source, or sources, of the lion’s lameness? Doctors were also interested in learning what was behind Lionel’s decreased appetite and resulting weight loss.

After being intubated with a mixture of isoflurane and oxygen, the lion was moved to the Zoo's new Animal Health and Conservation Center by van. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.
Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

Los Angeles Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Stephen Klause had an idea going in about where the lameness problem may have originated: a bad declaw. Lionel (named Lionel Finnell by his adoptive “parent”) and his mate, Cookie, came to the Zoo in 1997 from Wildlife Waystation, a rescue organization who took them in after their owners, a roadside zoo attraction, could no longer care for them. Like too many big cats in private ownership, Lionel had been declawed, an operation that frequently poses problems for animals down the road. Dr. Klause, as Chief of Surgery at the Arcadia Small Animal Hospital in Arcadia, Calif., perfroms 1,000 to 1,100 animal surgeries a year. An orthopedic specialist, Dr. Klause began volunteering at the Zoo nearly 10 years ago and became an employee a year ago, performing surgeries and exams one day a week.

As Dr. Klause bent and manipulated limbs that ended in paws the size of saucers, other members of the team worked against time to collect blood and tissue samples, take X-rays, scrape Lionel’s 2½-inch canines, perform endoscopies, examine his eyes and ears—in short, to do everything they possibly could while Lionel endured what is commonly known in the parlance of veterinary circles as a “knockdown” procedure.

Keeper Julie Sweet positions the state-of-the-art X-ray machine over Lionel. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.
Dr. Stephen Klause, left, and Dr. Bob Cooper review X-rays of Lionel's leg. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

Morning Rounds

The day began at 9 a.m. in the beech-paneled library of the new Animal Health and Conservation Center. As morning light fell past shelves of books with titles such as Parasitic Diseases of Wild Animals, a group that included Dr. Janna Wynne, Dr. Russ Burns, Dr. Klause, and animal health care staff members Lory Palmer, Ruth Yakushiji, Julie Sweet, and Betty Gillikin sipped coffee and discussed the day’s agenda of animal care. Also present was Christine Whalley, a dedicated surgery technician who works with Dr. Klause in his private practice, and who volunteers at the Zoo to assist during procedures.

Topics ranged from an exam performed the day before on Angel the gorilla to how to get a diabetic mangabey to accept a needle for insulin injections. (“She’s a very suspicious monkey,” said someone at the table.) From the care of mice used in the Zoo’s education division outreach programs to California condors to rhinos and African hoofstock (and everything in between), the Zoo’s animal health care team provides the same unfailing care and expertise to creatures great and small. Each day brings with it its own unique set of challenges, and today’s would include the tranquilization and transport of a 400-pound animal quite capable of killing any of them.

Time to Roll

The call came from Animal Keeper Monica Van Duzer: Lionel was isolated in a rear holding area, Cookie was out on exhibit, and they were ready for the vets. The team worked quickly to gather all the necessary equipment—darts, drugs to reverse the darts’ medication, a portable anesthesia machine, and sturdy carrying net, among other items. They loaded the equipment and themselves into two vehicles and made their way down to the lion exhibit.

Even the giraffes in their exhibit next door seemed to know something was up. They craned their long necks toward where the team waited, trying to get a better view as Dr. Klause entered the holding area to dart Lionel. Lionel, having been through this procedure eight months earlier with Dr. Klause, and having a memory more like an elephant than a large cat, drew himself up to his full 8 feet, stood upright against the holding area bars, and filled the quietness of the early-morning Zoo environment with several very loud, very angry roars. For a moment, his lameness forgotten, Lionel was the undisputed king of the jungle and the Zoo, until Dr. Klause took aim and fired the tranquilizer dart with its potent combination of Telazol and Medetomidine.

Then the wait began, the dart having fallen to the floor. But a sufficient amount of the medicine had penetrated Lionel’s thick hide, and soon his eyes grew heavy-lidded and his head dropped. A mask was placed over his whiskers, and he was quickly intubated with the gas and oxygen mixture. Animal Keeper Ayéssa Rourke and Senior Animal Keeper Robin Noll showed up to lend a hand, and seven people gently rolled, pushed, and lifted the beast onto a sturdy carrying net, then hefted him carefully onto the hydraulic rear gate of a van for the ride to the Health Center.

Once there, Lionel was placed on a wheeled table and brought into the exam room. The strong tranquilizers were reversed, and his stillness was maintained only via gas. Visiting volunteer human ophthalmologist Dr. Tiffany Blocker and her technician, Debbie Atkinson, began a thorough examination of Lionel’s eyes. Blood was drawn to be tested; X-rays were made of his chest, abdomen, fore- and hind-limbs; an ultrasound was performed on his furry abdomen; and an endoscope was used to see inside his digestive tract. Lionel was beautiful in his stillness as Van Duzer soothingly stroked his soft mane when she wasn’t lending a hand to the veterinary team. Just once, the anesthesia mixture got “light,” and Lionel began to twitch and emanate deep, guttural growls.

Arcadia Small Animal Hospital Surgery Technician Christine Whalley and Animal Keepers Monica Van Duzer and Ayéssa Rourke wait for the tranquilizer to take effect. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.
As Dr. Janna Wynne (right) inserts the tube that will keep Lionel immobile, everyone pitches in to lift the 400-pound animal into the van. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.
Visiting ophthalmologist Tiffany Blocker and Technician Debbie Atkinson examine Lionel's eyes as other team members draw blood and perform a thorough examination. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

“If he wakes up, you’re all safe except for me,” joked Dr. Klause. “I’m the one who darted him.” The mixture was quickly readjusted, and Lionel sank back into a deep slumber, much to the gratefulness of everyone in the room.

In all, 10 or more people worked on the lion simultaneously, something that just would not have been possible at the old health center.

“Procedures like this were a nightmare at the old space because there was so little room,” said Dr. Wynne. “People had to stand outside the door until they were needed. There was no rolling table—he would have to be dragged from room to room with sheer manpower.”

The movable X-ray machine mounted on the ceiling is also a joy to Animal Keeper Julie Sweet, not only in its mobility but because the human-grade machine can shoot through the thickness of a gorilla or a lion’s chest—something the old machine could not do.

The team worked nonstop for more than three hours, occasionally lightening the pressure of their work with a little medical humor. Finally, it was time for the last procedure: Lionel was weighted, then loaded back into the van for the return trip to his exhibit, where he woke up easily from the procedure.

Everyone plays a vital role in examinations where time is of the essence. The less time an animal spends under anesthesia, the lower the risk. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

Early Results

Though not all Lionel’s medical results were back at the time of writing, early test results look encouraging.

“Most of the general blood work is coming back normal, and he tested negative for all viral infections,” said Dr. Klause. That last bit is important, as it is estimated that at least 80 percent of lions tested in South Africa are sero-positive for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. “On paper, at least, Lionel appears to be the epitome of health,” Dr. Klause added. “But we know that is not the case, so we are starting to look at less common explanations for his weight loss and the soreness in his joints.”

Dr. Cooper checks the anesthesia tube to make sure it is secure. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

Exotic animal care is different from domestic animal care, says Los Angeles Zoo Chief Veterinarian Dr. Robert Cooper, because even though wild animals seem to deal with disease better, their ability to mask health problems is also far greater than that of a domestic animal.

“A bit of the art of zoo medicine is gauging when it is appropriate to go in and actively manage an animal’s medical situation. We rely so much on the keepers’ perceptions, because sometimes it’s the small things that are indicators,” said Dr. Cooper, citing the case of a Dall’s sheep at another zoo that appeared “off” one day. Under examination the following day, the sheep’s lungs were discovered to be functioning at a level of only 10-15 percent. “It is amazing what animals can accomplish and still be profoundly compromised,” continues Cooper, who believes the tendency to hide pain and/or injury stems from predation and territorial concerns in the wild.

Lionel’s lameness does not appear to originate from his declaw operation. Dr. Klause performed “taps,” a procedure in which synovial fluid is withdrawn from the joints and tested, and the results do show very mild changes typically associated with arthritis. This, in addition to loss of cartilage on the articulating surfaces of Lionel’s joints, probably accounts for his soreness and will likely be treated with joint replacement compounds such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

And what about the dropping of 43 pounds from Lionel’s 404-pound frame? A blood test result suggests a deficiency in digestive enzymes, according to Dr. Wynne, which can be treated with supplemental enzymes. Though the new health center and its equipment is a huge improvement over the old, Dr. Wynne still has an equine endoscope on her wish list.

“The human endoscope that we used on Lionel simply doesn’t reach far enough to get a biopsy of his small intestine,” said Wynne. “So we can’t rule out an intestinal disease.”

In the meantime, Lionel will follow a course of arthritis medication and digestive enzyme therapy, and lots and lots of observation and care from his keepers and doctors. Thanks to their dedication—and the incredible improvements in treatment that the new Animal Health and Conservation Center makes possible—Lionel and his fellow Zoo residents will have the best care possible. ☐

Every inch of Lionel's paw and joints were thoroughly examined in an attempt to learn more about the cause of his lameness. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.
Photo by Bruce Gelvin
Photo by Bruce Gelvin
Veterinary staff also took the opportunity to clean Lionel's 2½-inch canine teeth. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

Giving Thanks

If it weren’t for the generous donors who contributed money to outfit our beautiful new Animal Health and Conservation Center, we would be operating out of a state-of-the-art facility with antiquated equipment. Because of the support of donors who understand that veterinary medicine is operating at the same level as human medicine—and requires the same expensive medical equipment—we have been able to upgrade our diagnostic equipment. We are thrilled to have a beautiful new radiology machine and processor, anesthesia machines, surgery tables, endoscopy equipment—the list goes on and on.

Donors provided the funds for state-of-the-art equipment at the new health center. Photo by Bruce Gelvin.

Hand in hand with the equipment goes the expertise of the specialists from the Los Angeles human and animal medical community who make up our Medical Advisory Board. As zoo veterinarians, we the epitome of the “general practitioner.” We rely on the advice, the equipment, and the donation of time  by outside specialists to enable us to practice the best medicine and surgery in the world.

We are proud to be able to deliver the highest-quality medical care to the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo because of your donations of time, money, equipment, and expertise. The veterinary staff and the animals of the Los Angeles Zoo can never repay this kindness, or say it enough, but we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

—Cynthia Stringfield, D.V.M., Los Angeles Zoo Veterinarian


This article originally ran in the Spring 2002 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership.