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.
But 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 finally recognized the seriousness of the infection, they reached out for help on a listserv where Latin veterinarians discuss unique cases.
Enter Dr. Carlos Sanchez, a veterinarian at Brookfield Zoo.
The Chicago resident 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.
“There’s always a possibility people would react wrongly because it’s an elephant in captivity, and that’s an issue sometimes,” Sanchez said. “We saw an animal suffering, we saw an animal in need. We didn’t even think about it. We thought, yes, I’ll help you.”
Sanchez worked with vets at both zoos to organize a procedure to safely immobilize and operate on the animal in order 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 could be on hand.
After weeks of planning, Sanchez and his colleague Dr. Michael Adkesson flew to Colombia on June 7. He said they spent Friday, June 8, making last-minute preparations and on Saturday, June 9, they were finally ready to help Tantor.
Sanchez was put in charge of the procedure, which meant a lot of delegation and pressure to help Barranquilla Zoo’s most loved animal.
“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 said.
According to Sanchez, Tantor had a three-hour time limit for immobilization that he had to make sure was followed strictly.
“I told him, ‘Doctor, you’ve got to finish. I need to wake up this animal soon,'” Sanchez said. “I’m very intense. I just want the animal to be OK.”
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 said.
The operation went smoothly, and three and a half hours after they began, Tantor was on his feet and moving around. Twenty-four hours later, his veterinarians reported his demeanor had improved drastically from before the surgery.
Even though restoring Tantor to health was the main goal of the operation, Sanchez said the team accomplished much more.
“We were proud not only that we helped an individual animal but nurtured a relationship,” he said. “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.”
These sorts of connections are what brought Sanchez to Brookfield Zoo just over two years ago. After studying in Mexico, he moved to the States 12 years ago to practice veterinary medicine. Before coming to Chicago he worked at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
“I was comfortable with the animals at National and wanted to become a better vet and work with species I had never worked with before,” Sanchez said.
While working at National, he began organizing and chairing the same listserv that connected him with Barranquilla Zoo and Tantor.
“The team, the director, CEO, the president [at Brookfield Zoo] had a long history with Latin American institutions and the listserv I’d been chairing for 10 years. It was a natural reach for me,” Sanchez said.
Now in Brookfield, Sanchez helps take care of all animals in the collection, from preventative medicine and routine treatments to transfers for breeding, a job he says is never boring.
“My routine is never routine,” he said. “Today I have to work with a dolphin, tomorrow I may work with one of the goats in the Children’s Zoo, and Sunday I may check on a gecko.”