The zoo’s five American flamingo chicks continue to grow and change in personality! They spend their days showing off to their adoring public at the 10:30 a.m. flamingo happy hour, exercising with keeper staff, and training. Some of them are even starting to show some pink!
Wait, training? What could zookeepers be training the chicks for? Animal training, also known as operant conditioning, plays a very important role in the well-being of the animals under our care. Participation in training sessions by the animal is voluntary and utilizes positive reinforcement techniques. Staff are using clickers and extra treats to station train the young flamingos (asking them to stand in a specific spot, in this case on a white square towel). Zookeepers will ask a chick to station, if the chick stands on the white towel then the keeper bridges the behavior of stationing with the sound of the clicker and then the chick receives a treat. This is the same way many other animals are trained, including the zoo’s red pandas, giraffes, and even pet dogs. The training is still a new concept for the chicks, some of them prefer to build nests on the station rather than train.
What’s happening with Tiki’s leg?
Tiki has been sporting tape around his leg, an unusual fashion statement for a flamingo. This is because Tiki has an angular limb deformity affecting his right leg. This means that his leg has developed with an abnormal curvature.
What can cause this? Some of the most common causes that the veterinary team looked into are:
- A phase of rapid growth that allows the bone to bend under the animal’s own weight before it fully mineralizes during development
- Inappropriate diet (Tiki’s diet is consistent with the rest of the chicks and adult flock and is appropriate for him)
- Low vitamin D levels (Vitamin D levels in Tiki’s blood came back normal)
- Injury to the tendons, muscles, or bone (we’ve not witnessed any unusual episodes causing injury)
- Birth defects leading to abnormal development
What have veterinarians and zookeepers done and are continuing to do for Tiki?
- Supportive bandages were used on his legs to allow healing. The bending fracture appears completely healed at this point although the limb remains bent.
- Corrective bandaging was used because initially staff were worried that Tiki’s bone was abnormal and not strong enough for surgical correction. They tried several bandaging techniques in an attempt to alter the growth of his leg to correct the abnormality. Bandaging may have helped prevent significant worsening, but unfortunately, the minimally invasive technique did not correct the bend.
- Pain medication is given at times that he is uncomfortable.
- Weekly check-ups with radiographs are used to monitor the bone and measure any changes in the angle of the deformity that may require a change in his treatment plan
- UVB light treatment or vitamin D, which is important for bone development. Tiki and the rest of the flamingo chicks are exposed both to sunlight with frequent trips outside and UVB light produced by special lamps that are located in their indoor bedrooms.
Tiki’s care team is currently determining whether or not Tiki’s abnormal leg will impact his ability to live life as a normal flamingo. They may pursue surgery to help correct the abnormal leg curvature, but there are risks related to the surgery and anesthesia (as with any medical procedure) that must be carefully considered. They are also connecting with other zoos and veterinarians who have experience caring for flamingos.
Come visit the flamingo chicks to see how Tiki’s leg is doing, watch the zookeepers and flamingos work on training, and see the hints of pink that are appearing in the feathers of the young flock.