My fondest wish is to never see this very wild--and very special--patient again.
As zoo veterinary technicians, we take care of animals that don't walk into the clinic on a leash and don't greet us with purrs and licks when they wake from anesthesia. Our exams are quick and our patients are back in their exhibits before lunch. Once we're done we hope they're healthy enough that they don't need to see us again until next year. Of course, none of this prepared our medical team at the Phoenix Zoo's Animal Care Center for the bond we'd develop with one special California condor.
We don't have a single California condor on exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo; only three zoos in the country have that honor. However, at a site near the Grand Canyon, Arizona is lucky enough to be home to 58 of these magnificent birds carefully monitored by the field biologists of the Peregrine Fund.
California condor number 134 takes his first tentative steps to flight after a long illness. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the world condor population reached 289 this year, up from 22 birds in 1982.
And that's where we came in. In February, the radio transmitter of free-flying condor 134 indicated he hadn't moved all day. At the bottom of a canyon along the northern border of Arizona, the biologists found condor 134 lethargic and unable to stand. Head condor biologist Chris Parish knew the best bet was to get this bird to our zoo to see Kathy Orr, DVM, a veterinarian with 10 years of California condor experience. There was just one hitch—the Grand Canyon is more than 400 miles from the Phoenix Zoo.
Thanks to the cooperation of state agencies, our bird traveled by truck, helicopter, and plane, and soon found himself on our exam table at the Phoenix Zoo. The biologists who'd delivered the condor told us field blood tests had confirmed lead poisoning. Radiographs showed no lead in the gastrointestinal tract; the lead that affected our patient was in his blood. Dehydrated and emaciated, his prognosis was poor, but we knew we had to try everything to save this bird. Though none of us ever said it out loud, I think the entire hospital team felt this bird was important.
Even under anesthetic, condor 134 is still a handful. "We jokingly diagnosed ourselves with carpal condor syndrome," says Susan Logan, BS, CVT.
It could've been because there are fewer than 300 of these birds in the world. Perhaps it was simply the awe-inspiring sight of the largest—and some would argue the ugliest—flighted bird in North America. One thing was for sure: These birds are survivors, so he still had a chance.
When Dr. Orr examined condor 134, she discovered his crop (the organ where a bird stores food after eating) wasn't moving food to the stomach for digestion. A surgically placed stomach tube would let the crop recover while the bird received nutrition. A series of injections would eventually rid his blood of lead.
Meanwhile, we needed to help this bird gain weight fast. The hospital zookeeper, Linda Cava, invented a high-calorie, high-protein convalescent diet that was easy to inject into the stomach tube through a 60-milliliter syringe. This weight-gain formula worked so well that we began to refer to the foul-smelling gruel as liquid gold.
The Animal Care Center team poses in front of the condor release cage. From left to right: Roberto Aguilar, DVM; Kathy Orr, DVM; Susan Logan, BS, CVT; and Melodie Meldrum, CVT.
But getting the liquid gold into our bird was no easy task. Linda, Melodie Meldrum, CVT, and I were responsible for restraining condor 134 three times a day for tube feedings. As our bird became stronger, restraining him grew harder. By the time our bird was healthy, it took three people to hang onto the beak, wings, and feet and a fourth person to inject the liquid gold into the stomach tube. We complained of sore hands, arms, and shoulders, but we loved every minute of it.
After two months, we released condor 134 to a holding pen near the Grand Canyon, where he strengthened his flight muscles. The head biologist invited the entire hospital team to make the long trip to see our bird's release back to the wild. We were thrilled. Few people get the opportunity to see these birds flying in the wild.
After a four-hour drive, we spent a fun evening enjoying barbecue and the company of the field biologists under the Vermilion Cliffs. The next morning, we hiked to the release pen and watched "our" bird as he was caught up for the last time. A new radio transmitter was secured to his tail before he was carried close to the edge of the 1,000-foot cliff. Reluctantly, I put my camera down. It would be impossible to capture the moment we were about to witness.
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Though wobbly at first, 134 flew just above the brush until he disappeared from sight. Moments later and hundreds of feet above our heads he became a black speck heading south to join the half-dozen or more condors circling us in the sky. At once my eyes filled with tears as I thought of the triumph we helped accomplish over the past five months.
Thanks to the dedication, expertise, and passion of many people working together, this tenacious bird was flying free again. Our job was complete, and we could wish our patient well—and hope to never see him again.
Susan Logan, BS, CVT
Susan Logan, BS, CVT, is a veterinary technician at the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix. Please send questions or comments to email@example.com.