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Tiny patients a big challenge for zoo vets

Kamahl Cogdon, September 20, 2020 7:00PM Kids News

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Melbourne Zoo vets remove a bug that had burrowed under the skin of a white-lipped tree frog. Picture: Zoos Victoria media_cameraMelbourne Zoo vets remove a bug that had burrowed under the skin of a white-lipped tree frog. Picture: Zoos Victoria


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Operating on a sick lion or elephant is tricky enough for zoo vets, but it can be the smaller animals that present the biggest challenges.

How do you operate on a fish out of water or find surgical instruments small enough to use on the zoo’s tiniest residents?

These are some of the problems Melbourne Zoo vets recently faced when they operated on a small Mado fish with a skin infection and a tiny white-lipped tree frog with a bug burrowed* under its skin. 

media_cameraThe vet team ran water over the Mado fish to provide oxygen while it was operated on. Picture: Zoos Victoria

Melbourne Zoo senior veterinarian Dr Helen McCracken said the operations required special equipment and techniques*, as well as a very steady hand.

“The big animals are really what everyone thinks a zoo vet is all about,” Dr McCracken said. “But actually a lot of our work, probably more of our work, is on very small animals.”

Dr McCracken said zoo vets had to be “really adaptive” and find instruments and ways of doing operations that worked on small animals.

“There is no company out there that makes instruments for tiny animals,” she said. “So what we actually use as instruments for these tiny animals are eye instruments made for people. So very, very fine instruments.”

The Mado fish, which weighs about 100g, was anaesthetised* and kept alive out of water on the operating table by the vet team running water over its gills to provide oxygen.

“The fish had a lesion* on his face that had become infected with bacteria,” Dr McCracken explained.

“So the procedure was to take away the dead tissue and put on a special dressing that we knew would stay on underwater and have a disinfectant* effect.”

The fish is now fully-recovered and back in its tank.

media_cameraThe Mado fish has fully recovered and is back in its tank after its operation. Picture: Melbourne Zoo

Dr McCracken said the zoo’s vets also operated on a tiny white-lipped tree frog, weighing just 50g, to remove a fly larvae* under its skin.

The frog had recovered well after its operation, she said.

She said it had taken zoo vets some time to work out the best ways to successfully anaesthetise fish and frogs.

“We have worked out ways of quickly getting them anaesthetised, keeping them asleep and then have them waking up again quite quickly. It is very satisfying,” she said.

media_cameraThe vets successfully remove the fly larvae from under the skin of the white-lipped tree frog. Picture: Zoos Victoria
media_cameraBack in action after surgery. Picture: Zoos Victoria

While Melbourne Zoo is temporarily closed to visitors during coronavirus restrictions, keepers and vets are working just as hard as ever to care for the animals.

And animal-lovers can watch on from home through the Zoos Victoria live stream cameras at

Lion 'Alistair' being prepared for surgery to remove lump from his lower lip at the Perth Zoo in WA. animal /Lions media_cameraZoo vets can operate on big patients like Alistair the lion at Perth Zoo in 2008, and smaller animals too. Picture: Russell Millard
A Melbourne Zoo, veterinarians perform surgery on the foot of anesthetised Bong Su a 22 year old elephant. The opperation was performed by 8 vets and 15 support staff. fVeterinary. Melbourne Zoo. Elephants. media_cameraIt took eight vets and 15 support staff to operate on Bong Su the elephant at Melbourne Zoo in 1996. Picture: Karen Dodd


  • burrowed: dug
  • techniques: ways of doing something
  • anaesthetised: put to sleep temporarily
  • lesion: wound
  • disinfectant: keep clean from bacteria
  • fly larvae: young fly that has not fully formed


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  1. What type of fish did zoo vets operate on?
  2. How big was the fish?
  3. What medical problem did it have?
  4. What type of frog did zoo vets operate on?
  5. What was the frog’s medical problem?


1. Australia’s next top zoo vet
Being a zoo vet sounds super interesting but also quite difficult! Think about the challenges that are mentioned in the story and what skills would be needed to solve these challenges. Then, write down or record yourself talking about the top three skills or qualities you have, that would make you a great zoo vet. Write or present your points as if you are applying for a job as a trainee vet – make yourself sound amazing!

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Personal and Social Capability

2. Extension
In a Venn diagram or a table, compare the challenges of operating on big animals versus the challenges of working on small animals, with an overlapping section to show the challenges that would be common to both big and small animals.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English; Science

Stretch your sentence
Find a “who” in the story — a person or animal. Write it down.

Add three adjectives to describe them better.

Now add a verb to your list. What are they doing?

Add an adverb about how they are doing the action.

Using all the words listed, create one descriptive sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Which animals would you most like to care for if you were a keeper or a vet at the zoo?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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