Young male penguin dies after spinal surgery

Bird is 2nd animal to die at zoo in 2 weeks

April 04, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,sun reporter

A young male penguin at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore died while recovering from surgery to correct a spinal deformity, zoo officials announced yesterday.

The 6-month-old African penguin, who was born in October and had not been named, was found dead by zoo officials Friday.

He had the spinal surgery - the first such operation performed on a penguin - five weeks earlier to correct a curvature of his spine that caused him to hunch over while standing and to have trouble walking. The deformity likely was congenital, zoo officials said.

It is the second death of an animal at the zoo in less than two weeks. Zoo officials announced last week that J.B., an 18-year-old lioness, was euthanized after she was diagnosed with liver disease.

The penguin was one of 50 birds living at the zoo's exhibit, home to the largest captive population of African penguins in North America.

Zookeepers first noticed the penguin's condition about nine or 10 weeks after his birth.

"He didn't have the normal posture of a penguin," said Leah Kintner, the zoo's avian collection and conservation manager. "He basically had a kink to the spine that didn't allow him to walk normally."

An MRI in February showed a looseness of vertebrae and an upward bend to the spine, called kyphosis, said Carol Bradford, a veterinarian at the zoo.

He was treated with antibiotics and antifungal medications before undergoing surgery to stabilize the spine using wire and bone cement, Bradford said.

Dr. John J. McDonnell, a neurologist who practices in Bowie and consults for the zoo, performed the operation. He had operated on dogs with spinal deformities successfully in the past.

"We really want to emphasize that we are definitely saddened by his death, but we have really gained a lot through his condition, as we have had the ability to conduct the MRI and the surgery," Bradford said. "So this case really contributed a lot to what we know about avian surgery and spinal problems with birds."

The penguin had been kept off of the exhibit after the surgery. His caretakers had limited his movement, including swimming, and had planned to begin physical therapy.

"There was not a dramatic improvement," Bradford said. "But that is not expected with spinal cord conditions. Sometimes it takes several weeks or months to know if the surgery is a success."

The penguin will undergo a necropsy at the Johns Hopkins University to determine a cause of death.

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