As the nights draw in and Autumn is upon us, the staff at the AWCP have already been preparing the animals and enclosures for the cooler (and wetter) weather. After a long, dry summer and equally parched Autumn, it is easy to forget that Gibraltar also experiences colder months, especially for the more exotic species at the park.

An important aspect of animal husbandry is veterinary care. Since the very beginning of the Wildlife Conservation Park, the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic (GibVets) have been integrally involved. When the first consignments of animals were found onboard a ship from Africa, Mark Pizarro was called upon to help assess and coordinate the veterinary care so desperately needed by this pitiful cargo. “Many of the parrots perished, they were found in such terrible conditions,” said Mark.

Since the very beginning, Mark and his team at GibVets have continued to support the Park and its animals, helping to keep them healthy. Over the years, Mark has had to assist with some bizarre and challenging situations, from escaped Long-tailed macaques to Pot-bellied pig castrations, administering contraceptives to tiny, endangered primates and scanning Asian short-clawed otters for kidney stones.

The Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic was, for many years, the only vet clinic in Gibraltar, and so was always busy with a plethora of local domestic pets. But they still found time to help with the animals at the AWCP. GibVets also manage the veterinary care for the macaques on the Upper Rock. This experience with macaques has been very useful when dealing with the menagerie at the AWCP.

Over the years, the AWCP has hosted many vet student placements. The small but busy nature of the park means that these work placements can be invaluable for veterinary students to build up knowledge and hands-on skills with animals. The AWCP tries as much as possible to give a good range of experience for volunteer students throughout their time at the park to help them to build their skills and experiences. The students are also given a chance to work with Mark and his team for part of the student programme, depending on their interests.

The AWCP currently has a vet student from Portugal. Margarida Placido is on a 6-month volunteer placement to build her exotic animal husbandry skills. Veterinary students that go on to work within zoos are required to know the standards of care and husbandry for a whole range of exotic species. Within a larger zoo, part of the vet’s role is to work with animal management teams and advise on best practice with regard to enclosure design, nutrition and general care, as well as putting in place preventative medicine programs and providing emergency veterinary care. Margarida also plans to carry out a research project during her time at the AWCP. She will be focusing on Animal Welfare and assisting the park with its first round of Animal Welfare Audits. This practice is carried out in most zoos on all individuals in the collection. It is something that the AWCP welcomes and it is now becoming more formalised by zoo associations to ensure Animal Welfare goals are being reached (and surpassed) in all zoos.

As a small zoo, the AWCP is not required to have a vet onsite, but is required to have 6-monthly veterinary checks. During this check, all health issues of the animals are discussed as well as checks on preventative routines and screening (bloods or fecal). Any husbandry or nutritional issues will also be discussed and hopefully resolved. At present, the AWCP does not have an onsite medical room or quarantine for sick animals, but there are plans for this in the future. With a growing collection, this will be increasingly important.

At the most recent 6-month check in July, upcoming procedures were prioritised and scheduled. One of the highlighted issues was the ever-growing rear-end of one of the AWCP’s Barbary macaques. Saffron, aptly nicknamed, ‘Kim Kardashian’ by Mark the vet, had a suspected reproductive issue common in older, non-breeding female primates. It was causing her natural breeding season swelling to persist throughout the year. Saffron is also renowned for being a little grumpy, something that is most probably related to a hormonal issue and hopefully this will resolve (along with her inflated rear) once the issue is dealt with. The operation was booked in to take place in early October, which was coincidently, perfectly timed for the arrival of vet student, Margarida, who was able to watch the whole operation from start to finish.

10am – On the day of the operation, staff, volunteers, and interns quietly gathered round to witness the darting of Saffron. Never a popular event, understandably and not something the staff at the Wildlife Park take lightly. “Darting is always a last resort, but with larger macaques, especially the less dominant ones, it can be difficult to crate train them,” explained Steve Bryant, Head Keeper. Many of the other species are trained, over time, to enter crates for easy and stress-free catch ups. If this is not possible, netting or darting is the only way to safely restrain the larger macaques.

Once Saffron was segregated from the group, the vet team arrived and set about darting.  The aim is for the dart to enter the animal’s thigh muscle, releasing a mixture of ketamine and other sedatives directly in to the blood stream. Within 10 minutes the animal will be sound asleep and none the wiser. Given Saffron’s character and feisty temperament, staff gave it an extra few minutes to be sure she was fully under.

12pm – Once back at the clinic, Saffron was prepped for the operation by the vet nurses. Much like a human procedure for the same uses, Saffron was laid on her back for the procedure. Margarida was able to observe the operation from start to finish, taking photographs throughout.

After some investigation, Mark found the problem to be some small growths on both of the ovaries. All else looked fine, so after a double ovariectomy, Saffron was sewn up and put back in her crate to recover. Samples of the tissues were then sent to the lab for testing but it is unlikely to be anything more sinister than non-malignant growths. There are no plans for Saffron to breed in the future so this procedure was probably for the best. Non-breeding primates can experience issues with their reproductive systems in later life.

2pm – Margarida escorted Saffron back to the park, driven by Absalam the vet assistant. By the time they arrive at the Park, Saffron was almost fully awake and bouncing around in the crate. Still under the numbing influence of the pain relief and drugs, she obviously felt invincible. This posed a slight issue for staff when it was discovered that the vets’ crate did not fit through the enclosure door. After some thought and ingenuity, Saffron was able to be safely released from the crate into a small holding area where she could recover in peace away from the other macaques.

4pm – Post-operative aftercare is a crucial part of the process. On this occasion the macaque was fully alert when she returned from the vets, but on some occasions, they can continue to sleep for a few hours more. During this time, they must be kept away from their conspecifics and monitored regularly to check their breathing and condition. If the animal has not awoken by the end of the working day, the vet would be contacted for advice and possibly a reversal injection. Thankfully on this occasion there was no need for any intervention. After a week-long course of antibiotics, Saffron was allowed back with her group and is recovering well.

Macaques have remarkable healing abilities and immune systems. If healthy, most animals bounce back incredibly quickly from procedures that humans would take weeks to recover from. We just hope that Saffron’s mood will also improve over the coming months, but so far there has been no sign of that, she’s as feisty as ever!

For more information on the AWCP, visit: awcp.gi or find us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Don’t miss the Mid-term Open Day on the 3rd November with the Botanic Gardens. More info at: awcp.gi/events

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Jess Leaper
Jess Leaper has managed the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) for over 12 years. Having completed her MSc project on the Barbary macaque, she later returned to Gibraltar and was asked to help out at the Wildlife Park. Vowing to somehow improve the enclosures of the primates there before she moved on, she managed that and much more. Now also active locally in sustainability groups and campaigns, raising awareness of Climate Change, particularly in relation to species and habitats.