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Zoo's Animals Get Star Treatment

Veterinarians: A new health center is ready to treat everything from geckos to gators.


The Los Angeles Zoo will unveil its $13.4-million Animal Health and Conservation Center today, allowing invited guests a first peek at its gorilla-sized anesthesia machine, pool for treating aquatic animals and new quarantine facility.

The 29,000-square-foot center replaces the animal hospital built in the 1960s. Chief veterinarian Bob Cooper said that at the old facility, "there wasn't the space, there wasn't the sterility, there wasn't the equipment to deal with both the nature of the collection we had and [the needs of ] the staff."

Zoo medicine presents special challenges because veterinarians must treat animals from rhinos to geckos, said Cooper, 47, who previously practiced at Calgary and other Canadian zoos. He became chief veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo last fall and now heads a staff of three full-time and two part-time vets responsible for 1,200 animals representing about 300 species.

The new health center, which is closed to the public, is tucked into a narrow canyon at the back of the Griffith Park zoo. It has five major areas: a holding wing with animal intensive-care units and swings for ailing monkeys; a hospital for diagnosis and treatment; a quarantine area; offices; and the commissary, where animal meals are prepared.

This week, glamour shots of animals were being hung on the walls and staff members were still moving into offices on the second floor of the two-story complex. But the veterinary staff already had begun using the center for animal care.

Lionel, a 14-year-old lion who had been losing weight and limping, was recently examined and found to have a deficiency in digestive enzymes. Methuselah, an older alligator, had growths snipped and sent to an outside lab for analysis.

One challenge for the vets is that wild creatures often don't look nearly as sick as they are. "It's certainly my experience that many of the animals we deal with will show very few symptoms until the condition is very advanced," said Cooper.

Cooper said zoo medicine has been transformed in recent years by "an explosion of information" about the health-care needs of animals in captivity. The field has become a recognized specialty in veterinary medicine.

Former Los Angeles Zoo vet Charles Sedgwick, who helped design the complex, said the new health center is smaller but otherwise comparable to such top-notch animal hospitals as the San Diego Zoo's.

Of the old hospital, Sedgwick recalled: "It was marvelous to have something designated as the veterinary facility. Before, you just worked where the animal fell."

Sedgwick said the new surgery suite, which has windows so keepers can watch procedures and an operating table that can support up to 5,000 pounds, is especially welcome.

"If you're going to give a chimpanzee a hysterectomy or something like that, you've got a truly sterile surgery," he said. "It has to be designed something like a swimming pool ... so that you can start at the ceiling and wash the walls down."

Known as the East Wing, the quarantine area is essential because animals new to the zoo must be quarantined for at least 30 days to test for diseases.

The East Wing also is equipped to become one of eight facilities nationwide approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for the quarantine of potentially deadly imported primates, officials said.

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