Lion spay--South Africa adventures: Day 4

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Holy crap, what an absolutely amazing day! Hands down, one of the best days of my life, one I will remember forever! We started off with breakfast at 5:45am (fresh yogurt, fruit and granola) and drove 3 hours to Samara Game Reserve to dart a Black Rhino. The rhino had been bought by another reserve for R450,000 (~$60,000!!) so we needed to dart it, put it in the transport truck, wake it up, then he would be driven to his new home. There was another large group there that was watching our vets and their team so we had to stand back and just let them work. After he was darted and down, Brendan treated the wound (penicillin and purple spray), drilled a hole in his horn to place a tracker, and placed another tracker on his neck (similar to a microchip). The reason for the trackers is to try to prevent poaching, or at least be able to catch the poachers. Rhino poaching has been a dramatically increasing problem in South Africa just within the last couple of years. The number was already up to 153. The poachers are often using veterinary drugs to dart the rhinos, but they give an overdose to kill the rhino. They often use a chainsaw and remove both horns in one big swoop. The horns are thought to have medicinal value in Asian countries so these horns go for 10s of thousands of dollars on the black market. It is a huge problem in the country and it’s incredibly sad that some unethical veterinarians might be selling these drugs to criminals. Every single rhino we worked on we placed trackers in to try to do our part in preventing this problem. Anyways, the rhino had some trouble getting up (considering they weight close to 2 tons, you can imagine why!) so once it finally got its foot unstuck from underneath him, he was walked over to the truck guided by the workers holding on to ropes that are wrapped around each of its legs. Giving butorphanol provides a partial reversal to allow them to still be sedated so that they don’t try to charge us, but awake enough to walk on their own to the truck. It’s a pretty amazing drug and we used it readily while there! Once secured in the truck we were able to stand on the sides to touch his skin and take some quick photos. Dani, Colleen, and Meagan got chosen to ride in the helicopter back to Kwandwe (about an hour flight) and we all piled in the van and drove the 3 hours back to the house. 

Lion spayThen the real fun started. Our goal for the afternoon was to find and dart the female lion and the young male lion that was lame. It took us awhile of driving around and putting up bait tied to a tree, but finally the female and her 2 cubs were spotted. She could tell we were there so she started guiding her cubs to a small water hole in a shallow valley. There we discovered the 3 young males we had seen the other night, including the one we needed. We slowly crept up on them in our vehicle while the other 2 vehicles stayed back to wait for our cue. 

We were probably 10-20 yards from the lions when Peter darted the male. He let out a growl and that made the other 2 lions on alert. I can’t even tell you how fast my heart was pounding and the silent screams I was yelling in my head! I had to literally cover my mouth during the entire ordeal! We sat in silence for a couple minutes until they calmed down a bit, and it only took a few minutes for the lion to go to sleep. We moved our attention to the female who was a little deeper in the valley and acting very protective of her cubs. Unfortunately the sun was setting right then and our cameras couldn’t quite capture the adorable cubs as they were playing in the water. We finally had crawled close enough in the bushes to dart the female. Peter hit her exactly on target and she let out an even bigger growl and leapt into the air and out of sight down the hill. We radioed the other car and told them to get to the female ASAP. The cubs followed her and eventually so did the 2 male lions. The other team was also in charge of scaring off the male lions so that we could work on our lion without being attacked. Just another day in the veld (field) ;p 

By this time it was pitch black and we were working by flashlight (they call it a torch). The 6 of us students and the 2 vets jumped off to work on the lion. We clipped and cleaned the wounds with antiseptic. He had 2 bad cuts on his right front paw, one that went down into the joint space. Our “clippers” were really just blades and they had to scrape off as much fur as they could. I pulled up 20mLs of penicillin and 3mLs of Ketofen (anti-inflammatory) which Peter made me come up with the doses on the spot. My mind doesn’t work so well when there is a 400lb lion right beside me, but eventually I figured it out. I gave the injections IM in the gluteal muscles. We all got to do a quick physical exam on the lion and we discovered another bite wound in his lip that went straight through to his mouth. Peter flushed it really well with antiseptic. He let all of us look at mucus membrane color and examine his massive teeth. They also wanted to put a tracking collar around his neck so that we could find him in the near future and check how his wounds were healing. Brendan reversed him once we were safe in the land rover and we quickly headed back to the house where the other car had picked up the female lion and brought her back.

The plan was to perform a spay on the female lion. A previous vet had attempted to tie her tubes, but considering she had 2 young cubs, the procedure obviously failed. I’ve gotten a lot of questions so far about why we would spay her since lions are an endangered species. They are indeed endangered, but these lions were in a game reserve. To keep these carnivores from completely overtaking the other game in the reserve like zebras, antelope, wart hogs, etc. they have to keep the lion numbers to a minimum. The fact that they are even allowed to hunt on this reserve is proof enough they were doing their best to keep the lions in the most natural wildlife habitat as possible. Also, this female was 14 years old (life span is about 15) so it was damaging her body to be having babies at her age. She had been on this reserve long enough that most of the males were her sons, so she was breeding with her own sons and I think most of us know nothing good comes out of inbreeds! I didn’t ask, but I assume that they were planning on bringing in a younger female in the future. 

Back to the good stuff. By the time we arrived they already had the female on the “surgery table” (the back of the truck) with 2 of her paws tied down. Two students held her other 2 paws throughout the surgery. Brendan placed an IV catheter and she was on fluids throughout the surgery. I helped shave her stomach, trying to avoid the ticks and fleas, and Kim did the sterile scrub. Addie gave the penicillin and ketofen injections. A few of us did the “anesthesia monitoring” throughout the procedure, you could easily see her chest move for respiration, or you could feel her movement of air from her massive mouth! Before she was under the drape we were feeling the heartbeat directly from her chest, once she was draped we used a digital artery on the top of her paw. 

Unfortunately the spay did not go as planned. There were adhesions (scar tissue) from her ovaries to her kidneys and body wall that prevented them from being able to visualize her uterus and ovaries enough to be able to remove them. They also found 3 transmitters that had been placed in her, probably from each reserve she’d been on, that also weren’t helping with the scar tissue formation. Also they had just made a kill that day or the previous day so her stomach was full of food. Brendan tapped her stomach and let out a bunch of rancid smelling gas that filled up the garage we were working in. There was probably a crowd of about 30 people watching the procedure. It’s not every day you do surgery in the freezing cold on the bed of a pickup in a garage at 9pm at night!

The surgery lasted about 2 hours and the lion actually woke up twice during surgery! I think those were the scariest moments of my life. Everyone has to drop their hold on her and step back immediately. She would let out deep growls and started moving her paws. She was really only light on anesthesia because we couldn’t use gas anesthetic and were maintaining her on IV drugs the entire time (medetomidine and telazol), but regardless, it was super scary! Brendan would run to the drug box and pull up more drug then inject it in her catheter and increase the fluid rate to a higher speed. Within seconds she would relax and we could go back to the procedure. 

We could tell Peter was uncomfortable with the entire situation. He obviously prefers working in his theater (surgical suite) than in these not so sanitary conditions. Once he got Brendan’s second opinion that this spay probably was not going to happen, they decided to close her up. They do a 3 layer closure just like in small animals but use a much thicker suture (0 or 1). He also does simple interrupted sutures for every layer because clearly the lion is going to pull them out (or her cubs will) so a continuous pattern would fail much quicker than interrupted. She actually had a fistula from the previous spay from that happening. Since the spay wasn’t successful, the plan was to use contraceptive on the female. They would dart her again in the future and place a microchip-like device by her shoulders that would release a hormone (GnRH) to prevent her from cycling. It’s supposed to last up to 18mos so even though it’s not the permanent solution they wanted, its still a pretty decent option. 

Peter finally got her all closed up and they loaded her back up in the bed of the truck and a small group of us went out with her to unload and reverse her so that she’d wake up in the field. I stayed back because at this point it was 10pm and it had been nearly 12 hours since lunch, I was starving! The cook was actually in the garage with us watching the surgery but he had already made some fantastic lasagna and salad. My veggie lasagna was incredible, even dried up at room temperature! He joked with us and said tonight’s dish was “lasagna cracker”, but really it was amazing and would have been more amazing fresh! I headed back out with a few other students and a guide to watch the female wake up and make sure she was alright. We did see her vomit which was expected since she had a full belly during surgery, but otherwise she was walking and getting around fine, just a little weak. We had a good time out there even though it was pretty cold because we packed some drinks and were all pretty ecstatic from the events of the day! It was by far the best day of our entire trip!

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    Former Member , 2 years ago | Flag
  • To read dvm360's full coverage of this attempted lion spay—complete with photos—click here.

    jzemler, 4 years ago | Flag

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