Angie Kutchery, Animal Care Specialist at the Racine Zoo, is primary macropod specialist managing all aspects of care for the Zoo's red kangaroos and wallaroos. Kutchery describes an atypical situation in which she and the team rallied together to help one red kangaroo fight cancer.
January 29, 2013 started as a normal day at the Racine Zoo. Two red kangaroos were scheduled for routine veterinary exams and animal care specialists were busy preparing. Suli, a 16-year-old red kangaroo, and Coing, a 13-year-old red kangaroo were locked in their holding stall so the consulting veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Nelson could anesthetize them for their checkup.
A few years earlier, a routine exam had revealed that Suli has spinal arthritis so radiographs were scheduled to assess Suli's spinal condition. Suli appeared to be in good health, until Dr. Kevin Nelson looked inside her pouch. A mass was discovered on her mammary glands and a biopsy was taken to determine if the mass was cancer.
Test results indicated the mass was a carcinoma. Dr. Nelson's first impression was that it was possible to remove, though another exam would have to be scheduled so more preparations could take place. Dr. Nelson also contacted other kangaroo experts to consult on this unusual case. The response was not very uplifting. Many who have seen this type of cancer before noted the outcome was usually not good.
At Suli's next exam, pictures and measurements of the mass were taken. The mass had grown since just the week before. There were two options: remove the tumor, which to the Zoo's knowledge, had never been done successfully before, or decide the risks were too high and do nothing. After some tough conversations, the surgery was scheduled for the following week.
Suli's mass continued to grow and was much bigger than the first day it was found. Surgery and recovery would now be more difficult. The size of the tumor also presented the possibility of removing most of her pouch.
Dr. Nelson laid out options, which included attempting surgery, knowing that at any time staff may have to decide the course of action while Suli was on the table. If the surgery proved to be too much, staff would need to put her down. Alternatively, the team could let the cancer take its course and make the decision to put her down at the first sign of discomfort. The last option was to put her down right away, knowing the cancer would eventually take her life. Her prognosis was grim, regardless of the option. After much discussion, it was decided the team would fight for her.
Suli was transferred to the hospital and prepped for surgery. Dr. Nelson removed the entire mass as well as most of her pouch. The surgery site was closed and the team began the long recovery process.
"These animals are under our care and are our responsibility," said Angie Kutchery, animal care specialist at the Racine Zoo. "They can't tell us when something is wrong or what hurts. It is our job to pay attention to the details and be their voice. We must always have their best interest in mind," she added.
Zookeepers are oftentimes up at night, worrying about animals under their care. "I know the night after Suli's surgery was a rough one for many of us. I was up early the next morning and rushed to work to check in on her," said Kutchery.
After several weeks, Dr. Nelson checked the surgery site and things were healing. Suli was on long-acting antibiotics to fight any infections that developed. She underwent one more surgery to help her now pouchless stomach heal. The surgery site healed well. There were no signs of infection or new lumps.
Removing a kangaroo's pouch had never been successfully before, as far as they were aware, and the team was in awe of the positive outcome. When this type of cancer is found in other kangaroos, it is normally too late. Through the determination of a great veterinarian, great aftercare and big hearts, Suli got a second chance at life. When finally released back onto exhibit, she greeted the other kangaroos and spent the rest of the day exploring and grazing on fresh grass.
In most cases, removing a kangaroo's pouch could be problematic, but not in Suli's case. A kangaroo's pouch is where a joey will spend the first 235 days of life. To have a joey, there needs to be a male kangaroo. Since there are no male kangaroos at the Racine Zoo, Suli will not need her pouch.
There may still be some difficult decisions ahead. This cancer could return. This is something the team will deal with professionally and with her best interest in mind. For now, Suli can be seen enjoying life in Walkabout Creek! "Always have hope," concludes Kutchery.