Castor, a 20-year-old Komodo dragon that lives at Denver Zoo, has been moving around a little easier recently thanks to the healing hands of a skilled animal physical therapist. Zookeepers had noticed that when they cleaned Castor’s area in Tropical Discovery there were fewer tail tracks in the dirt, an indication he wasn’t moving around as much. He was also spending considerably more time in his pool than he used to, perhaps to relieve pressure in his joints. The Zoo’s animal care team, including his zookeepers and veterinary staff, identified arthritis and stiffness in his hips and knees. They then set out to find ways to help him feel more comfortable.
In addition to the treatments they were able to offer through the Zoo’s onsite veterinary team, they wanted to make sure they did everything they could to help increase his mobility. Thinking a bit outside of the box, they contacted Tammy Wolfe, the owner and operator of The K9 Body Shop, PC in Arvada, to see if she was up for the adventure of working on a Komodo dragon. Tammy has worked on a number of other Denver Zoo animals including a camel, a sea lion, a gerenuk and several large birds. This would be her first attempt to work on a reptile – something a bit less cute and cuddly than her daily work on domestic canines. Tammy didn’t hesitate; she was game to give it a try if it meant that she could help Castor be more comfortable.
The big question was if she would even be able to put her hands on Castor. While he was used to being around his routine keepers, Tammy would be a new smell and the animal care team couldn’t be sure how he would react to her or if he would let her touch him. Because touch and manipulation of the joints and spine are critical components of her technique, this was the first challenge they had to confront.
During the first session, Castor “tolerated” about 15 minutes of hands-on time with Tammy. This was a very exciting first step. They decided to schedule Castor several more sessions to see if he would continue to allow the treatment and see if the physical therapy would help his mobility. Since November 2013, Castor has had regular sessions with Tammy and also receives some smaller treatment sessions from his keepers using techniques they learn from Tammy during her visits.
When she works on Castor, Tammy focuses her work on his spine and right rear leg. As he has become more comfortable with her, he spends more time letting her manipulate these areas on his body. While she works in spots that have already started to loosen up, he closes his eyes and becomes very relaxed. When she starts to work on areas that are new to their treatment, he often opens his eyes a bit, and then settles back in while she works her magic.
At the end of the first month of treatment, there were clear signs that the physical therapy was allowing Castor to move around more. There were far more tail tracks in the dirt when the keepers arrived to clean each day and Castor started spending less time in his pool, a sign that he is more comfortable. When the team watches him move around his exhibit they clearly see more movement in his spine and hips. Now, when Tammy visits it appears that Castor is far more comfortable, no longer just tolerating her visits, but relaxing into the treatments until she must leave to work on her next patient.
Working together, Denver Zoo’s talented animal care and veterinary medicine teams, along with the expertise of Wolfe, have made Castor far more comfortable, something they weren’t sure they would be able to accomplish when they started looking for ways to offer help to the 110-pound reptile. There is not always a handbook available to tell zookeepers how to support many of the animals in their care. But when trying to help Castor feel better, the team has been committed to looking for a solution. This is just one example of the passionate dedication Denver Zoo staff has for the 4000 animals in its care.