Animal Ambassador Stories

Houston’s Ultrasound Roadtrip

At the start of the year, Houston, the Barred Owl who has called Lindsay Wildlife Experience home for more than two decades, started showing a few signs of his age. He was acting very tired, his wings were drooping, and he was not as eager for his food. Our Animal Encounters and Hospital teams worked hard to pull him through the rough patch, and Houston is now as bright-eyed as ever. With plenty of time to rest outside in aviaries and in his mews, we decided to look for more concrete answers to what Houston’s ailment might be. 

We have a wide range of tests here at Lindsay Wildlife, and we have known for several years that his liver values have been abnormal. So we’ve kept him on medications to help keep him healthy. During his bout of illness in January, his liver values fluctuated again. Once he was healthy, we performed his annual exam, including taking radiographs. Using our x-rays, we found what appeared to be a sizable mass in his lower body, thickened intestines, and an enlarged liver. These were signs that Houston could have some form of cancer. It was especially worrying as it seemed possible that his liver trouble could have stemmed from a tumor that had been growing and metastasizing all these years. While he had recovered from this bout, a potential tumor meant he would likely suffer more of these periods of lethargy and inappetence that could have some increasingly serious ramifications. In order to ensure we could give Houston the best care possible, we needed a clear picture of his liver.

X-rays are great at showing rigid structures in a body, from bones to kidney stones to foreign bodies. Skilled veterinarians can even recognize the outlines and impressions of organs or densely packed tissues. When a detailed picture of soft tissues are needed, different kinds of scans can be utilized. Ultrasounds are often used to determine locations and causes of swelling throughout the body, particularly on soft organs. The procedure for scanning is noninvasive and quick, and the scans can be downloaded and viewed multiple times for thorough diagnostics.

Bright and early on the cool morning of May 7th, the two teams of  Animal Encounters keepers coordinated to get Houston to a very important appointment at UC Davis’ Companion Exotic Animal Medicine and Surgery Service. We have had almost no contact with one another besides phone calls during the COVID-19 quarantine. We decided to keep our distance to be extra careful, and Houston was perfectly happy to help us practice our social distancing!

Some people may wonder how well our birds do during travel, and Houston is a perfect example of just how adaptable our charges are. Despite the hour long drive on an empty stomach, Houston was perfectly chipper and curious as we arrived at UC Davis.

UC Davis has also enacted social distancing guidelines, so once we arrived at the Veterinary Medicine campus, we parked, called the office, and then waited for a technician to come and collect Houston from the shade. As always, he was very patient with his handlers, and happy to make sure that we were all keeping a comfortable distance between us. The precautions may have slowed the process down, but it gave us plenty of time to make sure that everyone, including Houston, was staying safe.

All in all, Houston’s procedure took just a couple of hours. When they returned him to us back in his kennel, he was still fairly sleepy from the sedation they’d given him to keep him calm during the ultrasound. According to the technician, he had been a great patient. After a brief check and a quick mist of water, we packed up his supplies and headed back to Walnut Creek.

Once again, Houston was a quiet and calm travel companion, though he was asleep for most of this part of the journey. Following another hour long drive, we were back outside Lindsay Wildlife Experience. After carefully sanitizing all of the supplies and Houston’s kennel, the Animal Keeper teams had another brief encounter, which Houston was kind enough to supervise from a gauntlet, before being returned to his mews. He was apparently still very sleepy, but woke up enough to eat his meal that afternoon.

One week later, we had good news from the veterinarians at UC Davis: Houston’s liver looked good and they found no abnormalities on the ultrasound. The mass in his lower body and those thickened intestines weren’t visible in later radiographs, indicating it was likely a pocket of flatulence and fecal material. Although this didn’t give us an answer to our trouble in January or Houston’s liver problems, the absence of tumors or growths gives Houston a better prognosis for the future. We will continue to give Houston and all of our animal ambassadors the highest quality of care we possibly can, looking into clues, no matter how small they might seem, to ensure that they can stay healthy for the full length of their lives.

Saying Goodbye to Woody
A Tribute to Our Acorn Woodpecker

During these uncertain times, very few things are guaranteed. At Lindsay Wildlife Experience, the Animal Encounters team has settled into their new normal. A long, hard day’s work slides into early mornings. Each day caring for wild animals is different, so there is comfort in a morning routine. Unlock the doors, turn on the lights, waka-waka-waka-WAK! “Good morning, Woody.”

Woody the Acorn Woodpecker is a record holder. At 26 years old, he is the oldest woodpecker ever recorded for any species worldwide. The second and third oldest woodpeckers lived to be 19 and 18 years old, respectively. Lifespan estimates for the species vary from 9.5 years up to 18 years, but none of these birds lived a life like Woody’s.

His story starts with violence. In 1994, a 6-month old Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) was attacked and mauled by a dog in Stockton, California. Negative human-based interactions with wildlife are, unfortunately, all too common. Animals being attacked by unsupervised pets are one of the top reasons for patient admission into Lindsay Wildlife Hospital. Woody was lucky. He survived the attack and was brought into Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center. There, he healed from his wounds but something wasn’t quite right. Woody became too friendly towards his human caregivers.

At first, this situation may seem charming and almost Disney-esque. But a habituated animal isn’t safe in the wild. Nearly all of our hospital patients are injured due to human interaction so being close to people isn’t safe for wildlife. Acorn Woodpeckers also have a complicated social system. Rehabilitators were concerned that Woody wouldn’t be able to fit in and this could likely lead to his death. In 1995, Woody moved to his new home at Lindsay Wildlife Experience and the rest is history.

“Everyone loved Woody.” Lauren Amy, Lead Animal Keeper, reminisced:

“Being an animal keeper at Lindsay, I consider myself lucky. I get to work with amazing people and help take care of the best animals out there. I get to help connect our community to our neighboring wildlife, whether it’s a visitor, a volunteer, a staff member, or even my own family. Every day there are new challenges, new successes, and new memories. Having been at Lindsay for 8 years, I’ve experienced it all, and along the way I’ve been lucky enough to form special bonds with some of our animal ambassadors. While all the animals I’ve worked with at Lindsay are amazing, there is one animal that will always hold a special place in my heart: Woody, the Acorn Woodpecker.

Ever since I started at Lindsay as an animal keeper intern in 2012, Woody was one of my favorites. His loud vocalizations, his happy hops whenever you greeted him, and his silly ways off falling asleep so easily always made me smile. When I became a full time animal keeper in 2014, there was no question I wanted to be his primary keeper. Woody was already 20 years old when I took over as his main keeper. He had a few medical issues that needed monitoring, but nothing major, and he rarely needed medications. It was time, though, to “semi-retire” him from programming and redo his enclosure to suit his needs as an older gentleman.  With easier furniture to navigate, Woody settled into his retired life nicely. To Woody, not much had changed. He was still visited by his favorite people (anyone who stopped to say hi to him), he was still able to go outside, cache his pebbles, and enjoy the sunshine and spray baths.

As the years went on, I spent my days as his keeper making sure Woody had everything he needed to be happy at Lindsay. He eventually required regular eye drops a few days a week and he often protested by keeping his eyes shut. Overall, he remained a fairly healthy old man and enjoyed the wide variety of foods presented to him daily, including his fruit, kibble, nuts, and insects!

As Woody entered his early 20s, we noticed he might need some assistance with reaching some of his feathers for preening.  To help, we started brushing his feathers a few days a week with a soft toothbrush. Woody loved this! Not only did he get to spend more quality time with his people, he also enjoyed a nice relaxing brushing at the same time. Oftentimes, he would fall asleep in your hands as you brushed him. Woody also needed more frequent beak trimmings as he aged. While they were never his favorite, we always took extra precautions to make sure he was comfortable. Afterwards, I would wrap him up in a soft towel and hold him in my lap while he napped.

Recently, I noticed Woody had been slowing down and sleeping more than usual. For a moment, I thought it might have been due to the fact that there were less people around to keep him company. But this last week, it became clear he would be ready soon. His last days were spent being close to some of his favorite people, being hand fed his favorite insects, listening to his woodpecker videos, and even “watching” some Woody Woodpecker cartoons in the keeper shop. And every morning, he still greeted us with his adorable happy hops and vocalizations.  I am happy Woody went as I always imagined he would, peacefully, and surrounded by those who loved him dearly.

Woody will always be special to me. He helped me grow as an animal keeper. He showed me how animals can help connect people to wildlife. Writing this at home, I hear the local Acorn Woodpeckers nearby. They will always remind me of the challenges, the successes, and the memories I had being Woody’s primary keeper. They will remind me of all the special bonds people formed with Woody over the years, even before I knew him.

We’ll always remember the little energizer woodpecker that lived to be one of the oldest of his kind in the world!”

Caring for an animal during their final days can be heartbreaking. Woody, however, always found a way to make people feel better. It was his magic power. Everyone he met was his new best friend. When he was happy (which was nearly all of the time) he would sing and do his happy dance. The Animal Keepers call this his “Happy Hops. During his final days, he got extra special attention. Lauren set him up in the animal keeper office and played his favorite cartoon: “Woody the Woodpecker.” The keepers would talk to him, kindly brush his feathers, and let him take naps in a warm blanket on their laps. He was happy. The next day, a new shift of caregivers started their week. Unlock the doors, turn on the lights, waka-waka-waka-WAK!, “Good morning, Woody.”

Woody is quieter this day and the Animal Keepers know that Woody gave us all the time he could. He sings for his keepers, he dances for the vet staff, and he tells all of his friends that he loves them. One day during an exam, Lead Wildlife Technician Marcia notices Woody would benefit from some oxygen. Lead Veterinarian, Dr. Krystal Woo, calls in his Animal Keepers. Woody, on his own terms, decided that it was his time to go to rest. Surrounded by people who loved him, his heart beats one last time.

Today the routine is different. Unlock the doors. Turn on the lights. It’s quiet.

We know how much Woody meant to a lot of people. To remember him, you can share a story, picture, or video with us on social media. Tag us in your post so we can all share in your memory.