Hopkins doctor tracks diseases of hoof and fin Aquarium, zoo get benefit of expertise

January 05, 1992|By Douglas Birch

Like a big city coroner, Dr. John D. Strandberg methodically examines the bodies of victims, trying to help authorities uncover the causes behind unexplained or violent deaths.

Unlike most coroners, Dr. Strandberg's unfortunate subjects can 18 feet tall or an inch across, weigh anything from a few ounces to 2,000 pounds, and come with two legs, four legs, scores of legs or no legs at all.

As director of the department of comparative medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the 52-year-old scientist, who holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and in pathology, studies the way similar diseases attack humans and animals.

As an outgrowth of that work, he, his colleagues and post-doctoral students have been doing post-mortem examinations at nominal cost for the Baltimore Zoo since the late 1960s and have also examined the four marine mammals that have died at the National Aquarium since it opened in 1981.

Over the past 20 years, they've investigated the deaths of whales, dolphins, hedgehogs, buffalo, tarantulas, polar bears, millipedes and dozens of other late, lamented critters.

The work has provided Dr. Strandberg and his colleagues with an opportunity to study rare diseases and collect an extensive archive of tissue samples, specimens and photographs from post-mortem examinations of exotic animals.

In turn, his work has helped animal handlers improve the diet, medical treatment, habitat and training of many creatures, great and small, still living at the zoo and aquarium.

"Once they know that a disease is there, they can implement the programs that will stop the subsequent spread of infection," said Dr. Tracie E. Bunton, a professor of comparative medicine at Hopkins who for the past several years has been studying the puzzling accumulation of copper in the livers of white perch in the Chesapeake Bay.

Acquaintances have sometimes called Dr. Strandberg the animal kingdom's answer to "Quincy," the flamboyant coroner in the television series of the same name.

The Hopkins scientist, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota and holds degrees from Hopkins and Cornell, smiles gamely at the mention of the show. "I would say, compared to some of the other things you could be compared to on television, it's relatively flattering," he says.

Anore, one of the National Aquarium's beluga whales, died suddenly and mysteriously in the marine mammal show's exhibition tank Dec. 23 around 1 p.m. That night, a truck delivered the body to a ground-floor autopsy room off Monument Street in the Hopkins hospital complex.

The body of the 11-foot-long whale, which Dr. Strandberg said weighed 1,400 pounds and was so big it didn't fit on a table and had to be left on the floor.

Veterinarians examining its organs found that the animal had died from a sharp blow to the left side. Aquarium officials concluded that the slap came from the tail of a dolphin swimming next to the beluga.

Dr. Strandberg still can't quite believe Anore's bad luck.

"It was just such a bizarre injury," he said. "The fractures that were there would not have been fatal, except that one of the fractured bones punctured an artery." The animal died from internal bleeding.

It was far from the first mystery solved by Dr. Strandberg and his colleagues in comparative medicine. Take the case of the feverish penguins.

A few years ago they discovered that avian malaria, probably transmitted from native fowl, was killing some of the zoo's Antarctic birds.

Penguins have not developed a natural resistance to malaria, Dr. Strandberg said, because there are no mosquitoes in the polar region to transmit the disease. (Efforts to protect the remaining birds have been successful. "There is no shortage of penguins" at the zoo, he noted.)

Zoo officials are concerned about infectious diseases. Each new animal is a potential source of a previously unseen illness, and ailments can spread rapidly because the animals are housed so close together.

"It's like boot camp," Dr. Strandberg said. "When you bring everybody in from a variety of places, you never know what they're going to bring with them."

Hopkins veterinarians found tuberculosis, apparently transmitted by humans, in some antelopes and buffalo.

An examination of deceased vipers from the Reptile House showed that they had succumbed to paramyxo, a virus that seems to leave the boas alone. The discovery helped the zoo treat other snakes and implement new quarantine measures.

Necropsies -- the animal equivalent of autopsies -- performed on some of the zoo's birds showed they were getting too much iron in the commercial feed then being used. Their diets were adjusted.

Putting a piece of tissue from an exotic and unfamiliar animal under a microscope may raise a host of questions.

"You'll get something on the slide, and you don't know what it is," said Dr. Bunton. "The hardest part is learning the anatomy of exotic animals."

Infectious diseases seldom strike down zoo or aquarium residents in their prime, Dr. Strandberg said. Most live to a ripe old age, surviving on average about twice as long as their counterparts in the wild.

But epidemics can occur, with disastrous consequences. Between 1983 and 1985, a mysterious illness felled the zoo's seven Angolan giraffes. One by one, they would begin staggering around their enclosure, rapidly lose weight and, eventually, collapse and die.

"We essentially ran up against a blank wall," Dr. Strandberg said, adding that he suspects that the disease was caused by a virus that somehow escaped detection.

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