Brookfield Zoo veterinarian travels to Colombia for elephant operation

At first, the veterinarians and zookeepers at Colombia’s Barranquilla Zoo thought their most popular resident, a 47-year-old African bush elephant named Tantor, was just dancing.

People loved Tantor-they drove across the country to visit him, he got a lot of Latin American media attention and even won a major election three years ago-so maybe he was just putting on a show for his fans.

In reality, Tantor was suffering. An infection was causing him to burrow his tusk in the ground in an attempt to alleviate the pain, and all that packed-in mud led to further infection. When his doctors recognized the seriousness of the infection, they reached out for help on a listserv where Latin vets discuss unique cases.

Dr. Carlos Sanchez, who curates the online community, saw an animal in pain and knew he had to respond to the call for help. Most importantly, he had administered anesthesia to an elephant before, an experience none of the Colombian doctors had.

Sanchez, a Brookfield Zoo veterinarian and South Loop resident, worked with vets at both zoos to organize a procedure that would safely immobilize and operate on the animal to save its tusk.

He communicated with Barranquilla vets through Skype, talking through each step of the procedure to ensure all equipment, permits and personnel needed would be on hand.

After weeks of planning, Sanchez and his colleague Dr. Michael Adkesson flew to Colombia this summer.

“I always define my procedures as very intense. I like to joke, I like to play with keepers, but once we start a procedure we do mean business,” Sanchez says.

According to Sanchez, Tantor had a three hour time limit for immobilization that Sanchez had to make sure was followed strictly.

Although anesthesia always carries its own risks, with an animal as large as an elephant, Sanchez knew the team would need to be even more careful.

“There is a little bit of fear because those animals are extremely dangerous. If they’re not immobilized they could harm someone,” Sanchez says.

The operation went smoothly, and three and a half hours after they began, Tantor was on his feet and moving around.

Even though restoring Tantor to health was the main goal of the operation, Sanchez says the team accomplished much more.

“We were proud not only that we helped an individual animal but nurtured a relationship. We trained the local vet in case this sort of operation needs to happen again, they can help another zoo. We were a bigger zoo with more resources helping a zoo with limited resources and expertise to become a better zoo and provide better care for their animals.”

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