At birth, giant anteaters are about three pounds and covered in hair, looking much like miniature adults. When a baby rides on its mother's back, similar coloring helps keeps the baby camouflaged. Giant anteaters, native to Central and South America, can eat as many as 30,000 ants a day. More anteater facts.
Giant anteaters have one of the lowest body temperatures of all mammals. The Zoo's anteaters will be on exhibit in their yard next to Lemur Island only when the temperature is above 50 degrees. The adult male will go out first, and the adult female and baby Aurora will go out later in the day, when it's warmer. If the weather allows, mother and baby may be out until 3 p.m. We apologize if there are no anteaters on exhibit during your visit.
We have been having a very scary time lately with our girl Maripi. About three weeks ago, she suddenly stopped eating. Now, any animal can go off their food for a day or two without it being cause for concern. Some animals will lose their appetite when the weather gets warm, or when it is breeding season. We’ve all had days when we aren’t feeling 100 percent, and animals do as well. So at first when Maripi stopped eating, we offered her treats to spark her appetite. Nice ripe mangoes, raspberry gelatin, and fragrant, mushy bananas—none seemed to appeal to her. She would still eat peanut butter, but not with her usual enthusiasm. The commissary sent up some insectivore chow from a newly-opened bag. Since this chow is very high in fat and protein it can turn rancid, and we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the chow itself that was the problem. Nothing helped.
We all agreed that it was time to anesthetize Maripi for a check-up. As you know, we have been able to ultrasound Maripi without sedation through her three pregnancies; except for the elephants and the giant pandas, I don’t think that there is a more cooperative animal in the Zoo when it comes to being examined awake. But even she has her limits. Lying on her back for radiographs (X-rays) would be more than we could reasonably ask of her. So Maripi was anesthetized and went on up to the hospital. The vets collected blood, urine, and feces. They took radiographs and examined her with an ultrasound machine. There were no immediately apparent problems, and Maripi returned home to the anteater barn.
We awaited the results from the tests on her blood and other samples. We learned that she had an elevated white blood cell count, which is a sign of a possible infection. We worked to get antibiotics into her in food, but were only somewhat successful since she still didn’t have any appetite. The commissary went to the supermarket to get her all kinds of treats, including baby food, avocados, and even pudding. The vets would come and give her injections of antibiotics as well.
But none of this seemed to help, and she was still listless and unwilling to eat. The vets decided that it was time to call in some specialists. Giant anteaters in zoos can sometimes develop enlarged hearts; we wanted to find out if this was contributing to her problems. The vets scheduled Maripi for a re-check exam and invited a veterinary cardiologist to come and take a look at her heart. During the exam, a veterinary radiologist who consults for the Zoo gave Maripi an ultrasound exam to try to identify anything out of the ordinary. Could she have a hidden tumor? Did one of her internal organs have subtle abnormalities? We wanted to rule out those problems.
This second procedure went smoothly. The cardiologist said her heart looked fine and the radiologist didn’t see anything unusual either. Our vets performed an endoscopy on her as well. In this procedure a flexible tube with a camera and light at the end was inserted down Maripi’s throat so that we could see if there was a problem there. They discovered that she had ulcers on her tongue and throat and that the lining of her stomach was inflamed. They were able with the endoscope to collect small biopsies to look at under a microscope. Of course we drew blood as well, and took urine and fecal samples.
Even though we now knew that she had the ulcers we didn’t know if they were the problem or if they were a result of the problem. It was decided that Maripi’s best chance would be for the vets to place a feeding tube in her. This would be a plastic tube surgically inserted in a hole made through the skin of Maripi's neck and into her esophagus through which we could give her food, water, and most importantly, medicine. The end of the tube inside her would stop just before the stomach. There is a ring of muscle at the entrance to the stomach that prevents the contents of the stomach from sloshing back into the esophagus. If the tube went all the way into Maripi’s stomach that ring would be forced open and she would literally not be able to keep anything down. The other end of the tube would be outside her body up near her shoulder blades. This position would make it relatively easy for us to reach to give her treatments but almost impossible for her to get a hold of. We certainly didn’t want her to be pulling it out!
Obviously the tube would be winding around her body from her throat to her back and had to be secured. Pieces of tape were placed over the tube and were held securely with surgical sutures. It would still have been easy for her to get a hold of it so we put a shirt on Maripi, covering the tube.
We waited for Maripi to recover from the anesthesia to find out how she would react to having a tube. It didn’t seem to bother her at all! She has been remarkably tolerant of her new wardrobe as well. The biggest problem has been trying to keep the bandage around her throat that covers the insertion point of the tube. She doesn’t mind the tube, but she objects to the bandage and pushes it up until it covers her eyes. We have been honing our skills and trying all kinds of tape, bandages, fabric, stitches—you name it—to keep her neck covered. We have even tried reasoning with her, but without much luck. Redoing her bandage has simply become part of her daily treatment.
With the tube we have been able to give her a high-protein shake twice a day as well as plenty of water to keep her hydrated. More importantly, we can get medication into her reliably. In spite of all the testing, we don't yet know the underlying cause of her symptoms, so the vets have devised a plan to treat a broad spectrum of problems based on her exam findings and to follow her response to treatment. It seems to be helping, because subsequent testing has shown slow but steady improvement. She has gotten much livelier as well. This makes us happy, even though pushing syringes full of chow into a feisty anteater can have exciting moments!
She takes a 45-minute walk around the hospital every afternoon and has won herself a number of new fans among the staff up there. Who could resist such a sweet and well-dressed girl? She is not out of the woods yet, but we have taken extraordinary steps to give her a fighting chance. We promise to do our absolute best for her, and we will keep you up to date on her progress.
There is nothing but good news from the anteater barn. Maripi’s improvement, while not rapid, has been steady. She was anesthetized again about two weeks after her previous procedure. The vets wanted to recheck her blood and to get a look at her throat and tongue to see if the ulcers and inflammation had improved. They had! Her throat looked much better and her white blood cell count had improved as well. A high white blood cell count can be a sign of infection so improvement there was very encouraging.
Since she seemed to be improving and her weight was holding steady, the nutritionists decided it was time to start getting her back on her regular diet of insectivore chow. We were still feeding her through her tube twice a day but each day we gave her a little less of the protein shake and a little more of the insectivore chow. Since she couldn’t taste it, it made no difference to her. It did make a difference to the veterinary technicians who were trying to push something the consistency of oatmeal through a skinny little tube attached to a moving anteater! Adding more water to the mix helped in getting it through the tube, and for the most part, Maripi was cooperative. About mid-meal, however, all she seemed to want to do was curl up for a nice nap. Unfortunately there were all these persistent humans trying to help her by keeping her up and on her feet until she got her whole meal.
Sometimes there would be a lump in her gruel and it would stop the flow entirely. This meant that suddenly, instead of going into Maripi some of her food would go onto Maripi. Each time she was anesthetized we put a new and improved version of her protective shirt on her. But soon it would be decorated with anteater chow and patched together with sutures, cable ties and duct tape, the repairs necessitated by her scratching at this annoying garment.
Gradually she started to show interest in some of her old favorite treats, especially peanut butter. Not only was this a clear sign that she was feeling better, but it also made feeding and medicating her easier. If she had her nose buried in a small dish of peanut butter she would hold still long enough for us to get her food into her and to make the necessary repairs to her shirt. Most importantly though it showed that she could and would eat on her own and that her tongue still worked as it should. No small thing for an anteater. We knew that no matter how good we got at tube feeding her, she couldn’t go on like that forever. She had to be able to feed herself.
After another couple of weeks of treatment it was time for another exam under anesthesia for Maripi. But this time we knew that as long as her throat and tongue looked healthy, the vets planned on taking the feeding tube out. A few days before this procedure, we had stopped the tube feeding. We felt that as long as she didn’t feel hungry, she wouldn’t try to eat her chow. We were encouraged when she actually did eat a little bit on her own. We had hoped she would eat more than she did, but reasoned that the tube itself may have made it uncomfortable for her to eat a large volume. Two days before her procedure we resumed tube feeding to make sure she was as strong as she could be for the possible removal of the tube.
The anesthesia went very smoothly (we had certainly developed a good routine for this for her at the hospital) and soon we got the good news. The tube would be removed as planned! Her throat and tongue looked great so out it came. And just as importantly from Maripi’s point of view, her shirt was removed as well. We all waited anxiously while Maripi recovered from the anesthesia .After a couple of unsteady laps around her stall, she settled into her bed to sleep it off. That very afternoon when presented with a bowl of anteater chow she dug in with gusto! She will stay at the hospital for a few more days to make sure that she continues to eat well and then she will come back to the anteater barn. Can’t wait to write and tell you about her return!!