No ' Takin ' This Calf For Granted

First-person report by Dr. Della Garell, D.V.M., our electronic vet, exclusively at

Eight o'clock Sunday morning, January 26: a phone call wakes me with the surprising good news of a takin birth. There was no observed mating 7 months ago. Apparently, they are secretive. The 500-pound mother did not show any physical signs of pregnancy either.

Dr. Della Garell

Only five zoos in the country have these rare muskox-like animals from China. I rushed to the zoo to check on this very special calf. Two other zoos have had fatal complications of birth for the mother or the calf or both. Only San Diego Zoo, the source of our pair, has had survival of both mother and calf.

After a strong start and good initial mothering skills for this first-timer, it became apparent that the calf was getting weak. By Monday morning, he had not been observed to nurse and we intervened with a blood test that confirmed lack of nursing. As with giraffe and other hoofed animals, nursing the special first milk is critical for getting immune antibodies to protect the calf until he starts making his own antibodies. After 24 hours, the only way to get this passive immunity is via a plasma transfusion.

San Diego Zoo offered to send a unit of takin plasma, which we transfused into him. (A side effect of this transfusion is exposure to the anesthetic that is circulating in the donor animal. During his transfusion, our calf promptly became anesthetized. I was able to reverse most of the anesthetic effects with IV reversal agents).

In his weakened state, our calf developed a bad case of dysentery, which quickly became life threatening. He was under intensive care as I monitored him anxiously throughout Monday night hoping our IV fluids and multiple medications would pull him through. By Tuesday afternoon, he was showing some signs of improvement.

He would stand if propped up, but still no nursing reflex. We continued to feed him via a stomach tube and intravenously. Wednesday: he was looking quite a bit better; his diarrhea had subsided and he was getting up on his own and "head butting" as he looked for milk. He still would not suckle a nipple however, so we took a chance that his mother would accept him back and he might "latch on" to the nursing idea. Mom did take him back, but he quickly weakened without nursing from her.

Back to the hospital to replace the IV units. His condition again deteriorated with more severe diarrhea. He hung in there though, and finally on Saturday morning he suckled for the first time after receiving an IV dose of painkiller for a possible gastric ulcer. He has improved dramatically since then. He is off almost all of his medications and is drinking canned goat milk by the liter daily. He is now down to five feedings daily and instead of 24-hour care, and he is stabl enough to be alone from 11:30pm to 7:00 am.

This is a very significant birth for the zoo. We are now one of only three zoos in the Western Hemisphere to have a calf survive, and only the second to have both mother and calf survive. This calf's sire, "Ghengis", is only the third surviving takin born in this hemisphere. This calf's grandparents were the gift of the People's Republic of China to the San Diego Zoo.

The Zoo and the Veterinary Department all pulled together, (with some putting in over 100 hours in a week) to help this calf survive. He still has some problems and challenges, but I am breathing a sigh of relief that he is out of immediate danger.

We hope to train him so that he can be socialized with his mother and still get bottle-feeding from us. With any luck, he will be on exhibit in the near future.