A kangaroo battles cancer

A zoo keeper explains the unique challenges of caring for a marsupial facing a life-threatening illness

Topics: Scientific American, Kangaroo, Cancer, Wisconsin, Racine Zoo,

A kangaroo battles cancer
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American January 29, 2013 started as a normal day at the Racine Zoo in Racine, Wis. Two red kangaroos were scheduled for their routine veterinary exams and keepers were busy preparing. Suli, a 16-year-old red kangaroo, and Coing, a 13-year-old red kangaroo were in their holding stall so that the Zoo’s consulting veterinarian, Dr. Nelson could anesthetize them for their check-up.

So starts a blog post written by zookeeper Angie Kutchery, the Primary Kangaroo Keeper at the Racine Zoo in Racine, Wisconsin.

The rest of the story is anything but routine. Suli, a female, appeared to be in good shape aside from her spinal arthritis, which had been diagnosed a few years prior. “This causes her to be a little unsteady on her feet,” Kutchery writes, “though she has shown no signs of pain.” But when the vet inspected Suli’s pouch, he found a small mass on her mammary glands. The mass turned out to be a carcinoma. The kangaroo had cancer.

Dr. Nelson consulted with other vets who had some expertise with marsupial cancer, and the news was not good. The few other cases of cancers of this sort in kangaroos did not have positive outcomes.

Dr. Nelson laid out options, which included attempting surgery, knowing that at any time staff may have to decide the course of action while Suli was on the table. If the surgery proved to be too much, staff would need to put her down. Alternatively, the team could let the cancer take its course and make the decision to put her down at the first sign of discomfort. The last option was to put her down right away, knowing the cancer would eventually take her life. Her prognosis was grim, regardless of the option we chose. After much discussion, and fighting back tears, it was decided the team would fight for her.

As these things have a tendency to do, though, the situation became more complicated.

On surgery day, Suli’s keepers were nervous. Staff did all they could to help her, while keeping in mind they did not want to put her through unnecessary suffering. Once Suli was anesthetized, things got more complicated for her, and heart wrenching for Zoo staff. Suli’s mass had continued to grow and was much bigger than the first day it was found. Surgery and recovery would now be more difficult. The size of the tumor also meant we might have to remove most of her pouch. Keepers, curators and the vet now had to decide how to proceed.

Ultimately, the veterinary team did have to remove most of her pouch, a procedure that may have been a first for a kangaroo. I spoke to Angie Kutchery about Suli and about what it’s like to be a keeper when one of the animals in your care faces something like cancer.

Before we get to Suli’s story, what’s your background? How did you come to be a keeper?

In high school, I knew I either wanted to be an accountant (I liked math) or do something with animals. After taking an accounting class, I decided that I would rather not sit in an office all day! I attended UW-Milwaukee for Biology, taking as many animal classes as possible and graduated in 3.5 years. I also finished with a minor in Chemistry.

While in school, I completed many internships and seasonal animal positions. Starting the summer after my freshman year, I did an internship at the Bay beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, WI. This position focused on the rehab of native wildlife. I also worked as an intern at Bay beach the summer after my sophomore year. In the fall of my junior year, I worked on an internship at Oceans of Fun at the Milwaukee County Zoo. This internship focused on marine mammals and public presentations. The summer after my junior year, I worked as a seasonal keeper at The Heritage Farm at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Here, I took care of various farm and domestic animals and did many public presentations. During my last semester of college, I also completed an internship at the Racine Zoo. As an intern at Racine, we helped with all aspects of animal care for a wide range of species. After graduation, I continued to work at The Heritage Farm, as well as volunteer at Oceans of Fun and the Racine Zoo.

In December of 2008, I was hired full time at the Racine Zoo as an Animal Care Specialist. I started as a swing keeper, and now am a co-primary on our bird routine (though our routine also has deer, meerkats, macropods and mountain goats). I am also our Intern and Volunteer Coordinator and am in charge of our keeper schedule and ordering for our department.

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What do zoo keepers actually do? What’s a typical day like? Many people have no real sense of what keepers do, other than the parts of the job that they see: feeding and cleaning.

A large chunk of a keepers day does include feeding and cleaning. However, there are also a lot of observations, training and enrichment going on as well. We strive to provide our animals with the most enriching environment possible and to provide different activities daily. The goal is to keep the animals physically and mentally stimulated throughout the day and to encourage natural species specific behaviors. Some examples of enrichment that we provide are: diets presented in different ways (maybe in a puzzle feeder or box, or scattered around the exhibit), different scents (perfume, extracts or objects from other animal enclosures), different diet items that they dont normally get, changing objects in their environment, or providing different social groups if possible. We also take part in veterinary exams and observations as needed. Our vet is only at the zoo 2 days a week. We administer most medications ourselves and assist in most of our animal exams. A large part of being a keeper is observations and record keeping. Each day, we write up a daily log that records the days events as well as anything that was different with the animals that day. All medications and enrichment are also recorded daily.

The folk wisdom about animals is that if they’re experiencing some sort of illness or injury, they’ll do everything they can to hide it. The reasoning goes that, at least in the wild, an animal that’s visibly ill or injured is more likely to become someone else’s dinner. And that by the time an animal is overtly displaying signs of illness, then they’re really reallysick. Has this been your experience? Are there certain subtle things that keepers might notice in the behavior of their animals that hint at illness or injury that a regular zoo visitor might not realize?

I do think that most of our animals are very good at hiding an illness or injury. However, most keepers are able to pick up on subtle hints that might indicate an animal isn’t feeling well. These hints could be anything from not eating a portion of their diet like they normally do, drinking all/none of their water, not interacting with their keeper in the same way, not urinating/defecating like normal, or really any change in their normal behavior. Our zoo is arranged so that one keeper normally works with a set of animals for 5 days a week. The person that works the other 2 days of the week is generally the same as well. So keepers end up spending a lot of time with the animals and can generally pick up on even the smallest change in behavior. For example, our kangaroos get part of their diet hand fed each morning. They generally will approach the keeper each morning for this. If one does not approach like normal, I would take an extra few minutes to make sure she is doing alright, or schedule her for the next vet rounds.

So was there any indication that Suli was particularly ill? If not for the routine physical exam, would it have gone unnoticed?

In Suli’s case, there were no signs that she had a mass growing in her pouch. She had been behaving normally through the day of her exam. Suli also has spinal arthritis so we do generally keep a little closer eye on her as well. I do believe that if her exam would not have been scheduled for that day, we would not have found the mass until it was too late.

Since there aren’t any males in the kangaroo exhibit Suli shouldn’t have any real need for her pouch. But has she noticed that it’s missing, as far as you can tell? Are the others that share her enclosure interacting any differently with her?

Suli shows no signs that not having a pouch affects her negatively. I am sure that she knows something is different. In the days/weeks after her surgery, she would at times pick at her stomach. I am sure that removing that much of her pouch had to cause some discomfort and weird feeling in her stomach. I am also sure that while it was healing, it was probably a little itchy. Since she has returned to her exhibit, we have not seen any signs of her not having a pouch causing any issues. None of the other kangaroos or wallaroos that share her exhibit seem to be treating her any differently because of it either.

Cancer is something that most of us confront at some point in our lives or in the lives of our loved ones, but it isn’t something we typically think of when we visit the zoo. How have visitors reacted to Suli’s story? Are they surprised that kangaroos can get cancer? Has her story been incorporated into the educational/interpretive programs at the zoo?

Visitors have showed a lot of support for Suli. We shared her story around the time the zoo was hostingRelay for Life so I think a lot of people there could relate to her story. Our staff even made a luminaria for her! I think most people are surprised that kangaroos can get cancer. Her story has not been formally incorporated into educational programs at the zoo yet.

Three and a half months after first finding the mass, Suli returned to Walkabout Creek. She would have to recover from her most recent exam before she would be back on exhibit. On the trip back to Walkabout Creek with Suli, we fought back tears of joy, happy that she would feel the grass on her toes and the sun on her face again.

Of course the cancer could come back, or Suli’s spinal arthritis could become worse. But, for now, the story has a happy ending.

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