Michigan zoo's giant tortoise recovers from bone infection
By NICK BUCKLEY
Sep. 09, 2018
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — Zookeeper Kelsey Miller crouched down and gave her pal Al a scratch on the neck.
The Aldabra giant tortoise stretched out like a brachiosaurus reaching for food in the treetops and then let out a low-pitched groan of satisfaction.
Estimated to be 80-years-old, Al came to Binder Park Zoo in 1984, making him both the oldest and longest-tenured animal at the park.
A recent diagnosis of a bone infection in his front left foot has slowed him down, but Miller and a team of supporters are rallying to get him back to full health, the Battle Creek Enquirer reported.
"Reptiles do everything slowly, including heal," said Kim Thompson, staff veterinarian at zoo.
Miller has been working with Al for more than four years and said she and other zoo staff members began to notice changes in his behavior about two months ago.
"He's definitely a character. When he's feeling well, he follows you around when you're cleaning. He wants your attention. And he loves neck scratches," Miller said. "Animals naturally try to hide any weakness... (We) noticed he was more lethargic and less active than normal, and his appetite was decreasing. He was a little more grumpy."
Thompson collected samples and did radiographs on Al's swollen foot, where they found an infection in the bone. To make sure it wasn't spreading to other parts of his body, they needed to do a closer examination through a computed tomography (CT) scan.
The only issue: Al's size.
At 600 pounds, Al outweighs Binder Park Zoo's male Lion, Enzi, by nearly 200 pounds.
Binder Park Zoo reached out to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, which has a CT scanner that can accommodate up to 650 pounds. It took eight zoo staff members to pick up Al and load him into his transport crate before he made the 360-mile round trip trek to the Windy City.
The CT scan showed good news and bad. Al has osteomyelitis.
"It was painful and was probably starting to spread systemically, so it was good we were able to get on top of it and get him on medications," Thompson said. "That CT helped us know it was affecting the bones, which is more severe than affecting soft tissue. Clearing up a bone infection can take a long time, but it was localized to that foot."
Zoo staff tried at first to administer Al's medications orally by hiding it in his food. But he quickly figured out which pills he didn't like, so a feeding tube was placed in his esophagus to help deliver the medicines he needs as well as food and water when necessary.
Al will remain in his indoor enclosure at the zoo's Wild Africa exhibit during his recovery, which will likely take months. His exhibit is being closed twice a week, typically Mondays and Fridays, when he is sedated to change the dressing on his foot.
"If he wants to do something, you cannot stop him or out-muscle him," Thompson said. "That's why we have to sedate him. If he doesn't want me to change his bandage, I cannot change his bandage. He kind of does what he pleases."
Even at his advanced age, Al may be having his mid-life crisis.
Aldabra giant tortoises come from the island atoll of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean. Some individual Aldabra giant tortoises are thought to be more than 200 years old, but it is difficult to verify, because they often outlive their human observers.
Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise, was believed to be 255 years old when he died in 2006, making him one of the longest-living animals in the world.
Al gained a companion in 1989 when a female giant tortoise named Speedy joined him at Binder Park Zoo. She died from an illness in 2010 at the age of 51.
Al moved to his current residence at Wild Africa in 2013 at a price tag of $75,000.
Zoo visitors are being encouraged to stop by Al's indoor enclosure, peek through the window and wish him well.
He's also received some get well soon cards from his young fans.
"We're all a big fan of Al. He's one of the coolest animals I've gotten to work with," Thompson said. "We know he has a long road to recovery, but at least we're trending in a positive direction, which is great news."
Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com