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Unusual patients

Oyster the sea turtle and an unnamed snowy owl get help with what ails them from the U’s Raptor Center and Veterinary Medical Center.

April 7, 2014

What was a snowy owl doing in a decidedly unsnowy place like Washington, D.C.?

Getting hit by a bus, from all appearances. Following a stay at an East Coast rehab center, where the male bird’s head trauma had healed, “DC Owl” arrived March 26 at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center for repairs to his beak and feathers.

“His body feathers, tail feathers, and major flight feathers had been singed,” says Lori Arent, clinic manager at the Raptor Center. “It’s thought that since singeing compromises flight, that may have caused him to lose maneuverability and get hit.”

The East Coast saw a major eruption of snowy owls this year. It’s theorized, says Arent, that a large crop of lemmings—their major food source—in Canada led to a boom in owlets that grew up, depleted their food supplies, and moved south in search of new sources.

After Patrick Redig, a veteran avian surgeon at the Raptor Center, had repaired the beak, Arent went to work replacing 18 feathers. She drew the “donated” feathers, organized by species, sex, and age, from a freezer where she keeps feathers from previous patients that didn’t survive.

Fixing a feather—and a feathered friend

To replace one, she cuts the hollow shafts at the base of the damaged feather and the replacement. Next, she inserts a bamboo dowel that fits snugly into both shafts to form a connecting piece. After ensuring that the new feather will be the right length, she puts the two shafts together with the dowel glued inside them.

The new feathers will last until the bird’s next molt, after which a fresh set will grow. For now, though, DC Owl is being flown on a tether to strengthen his muscles and lose some of the fat gained in captivity.

The bird has been housed with a female snowy owl from Kansas; both will be released in northern Minnesota, no sooner than the weekend of April 12-13. For updates, check the Raptor Center blog.

An Oyster everybody loves

The U’s Veterinary Medical Center treats even more exotic patients. There, in September, an African penguin became the first penguin known to undergo an MRI. The scan revealed a lesion consistent with inflammation of the brain, which was successfully treated with antibiotics. Just nine days later, the center received another exotic patient: Oyster, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle at the Sea Life aquarium in the Mall of America.

Oyster, estimated to have hatched in 1976, is an 84-pound, middle-aged turtle with a congenitally abnormal left flipper. Sea Life veterinarian Amy Kizer had noticed that it was working more poorly than normal, and wanted to check it out. Because Oyster has an implanted metal tag, she couldn’t receive an MRI, so she had a CT scan—performed by Christopher Ober, an assistant clinical professor—instead. Kizer and her team handled the turtle, including the delicate task of anesthetizing a reptile.

“The scan showed a left shoulder malformation and secondary muscle atrophy, presumably because of the malformation,” says Trent, who arranges all exotic species visits to the college.

Oyster also has lesions in her liver and at the juncture of her upper and lower shells.

“Imaging was to determine if there was any progression of lesions they needed to be concerned about. Basically, there wasn’t,” says Micky Trent, an associate professor of veterinary population medicine.

Kizer says the Sea Life staff works hard to keep all their animals healthy. And since Kemp’s ridley turtles are the smallest sea turtles and highly endangered, making the trip to the U was all the more important.

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