Updates from the Belize Zoo: A Case Study on a Tapir

In 2011, Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and The Belize Zoo partnered under the guidance of Jay Hyman Professor of Zoological Medicine, George Kollias Jr, DVM DACZM. Since then, Cornell has sponsored veterinary students and faculty on over ten trips to Belize. I had the worthwhile opportunity to be on the June 2018 trip with seven other veterinary students as well as faculty, residents, and technicians from the CUHA sections of Dentistry and Oral Surgery, Anesthesia, and Zoological Medicine. As an aspiring zoo and wildlife veterinarian, this trip was a wonderful chance to receive personalized instruction and gain hands-on experience with a diverse group of Central American species. 

Upon entering the Belize Zoo, we were immediately consumed by the sights and sounds of local flora and fauna, becoming fully immersed into a jungle-like setting. All of the bio-parks’ animal residents are indigenous to the country and unfortunately, are non-releasable for a multitude of reasons. The Belize Zoo provides animals such as the kinkajou, harpy eagle, crocodile, boa constrictor, and tapir with a safe, comfortable home and sponsors them as educational ambassadors for their wild-counterparts. We were welcomed into the Belize Zoo Clinic, where we were introduced to our cases for the week. Cases included: a mass removal procedure on a Tayra (Eira barbara), physical exams and tuberculin tests on five Black Howler Monkeys (Alouatta pigra), a root-canal on a jaguar (Panthera onca), and venipuncture on toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus).

My favorite case was a newly acquired Central American Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) requiring a physical exam and pregnancy evaluation. The Central American Tapir is the national animal of Belize and is the largest land mammal in the country; this species of “mountain cow” ranges from Southern Mexico to Northern Colombia and is endangered throughout its natural range due to hunting and deforestation. “Lourdess”, as the zoo staff named her, was a female intact, Central American Tapir estimated to be in her late adult life. She was acquired by the zoo after she was found to be thin and distressed in an area outside her natural habitat. Dr. Kollias led the well-orchestrated, multi-disciplinary examination in the animal’s off-exhibit enclosure. It was our hope that she could be examined and rehabilitated if possible.

Dr. Andrew Cushings teaches students how to conduct a ultrasound-guided pregnancy check on “Lourdess” the Tapir.

Lourdess was sedated with a combination of ketamine and detomidine intramuscularly by anesthesia resident and faculty member, Dr. Erika Militana and Dr. Jordyn Boesch, respectively. When she was sedated, students began monitoring her vital signs such as respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature, and pulse oximetry. Respiratory rates varied between 20-32 breaths per minute while her heart rate remained fairly constant at approximately 40 beats per minute, consistent with past studies regarding chemical restraint in tapirs. In order to reduce stress, the physical exam was split into teams. The head, neck, and oral cavity of Lourdess were assessed by dentistry and oral surgery resident and faculty member, Dr. Lindsey Schneider and Dr. Santiago Peralta, respectively. Meanwhile, Dr. Andrew Cushings, professor from the University of Tennessee (former Zoological Medicine resident at Cornell), conducted an ultrasound-guided pregnancy check to evaluate whether her uterus was gravid. Blood and a fecal sample were also obtained by wildlife technician Tina Hlywa. This procedure was done efficiently in less than 45 minutes, leaving Lourdess with her keeper to wake up peacefully inside the enclosure. Students continued to monitor her recovery from the gate.  

After Lourdess returned to her normal behavior, we returned to the clinic to debrief on her physical exam and diagnostics. As a previously free-ranging tapir, she was found to have moderate changes in her eyes, likely due to age, as well as significant discharge in both ears. Nose and nares were considered normal. On oral examination, there were abnormalities on her maxillary cheek teeth, so intraoral radiographs were performed. Heart and lung sounds demonstrated no abnormalities. Her limbs and feet were normal, with some scarring lesions in her axillary region. Overall, ultrasound confirmed that she was not pregnant. Body condition score was a ⅖. Initial diagnostics of the blood work demonstrated a Packed Cell Volume (PCV) of 26% and TP value of 6.6 g/dl , both of which were within normal limits compared to studies of the same species of tapir in Costa Rica. Recommendations were made to increase her free choice diet, offer supplements, and schedule a follow-up dental exam and probable cheek tooth extraction in January.  Since her exam, she has been doing well and gaining weight. In such a short amount of time, the other students and I were able to practice necessary clinical skills such as using an ultrasound probe to evaluate the heart and monitor the vitals of a sedated animal. One of my favorite skills was learning how to consult the literature on species-specific reference intervals to determine if certain values were considered normal or abnormal.   

The new Belize Zoo Vet Clinic

This opportunity would not have been possible without the the Belize Zoo staff such as Director, Sharon Matola, and General Curator, Humberto, in collaboration with Dr. George Kollias. Our group was privileged to be able to witness the unveiling of the Belize Zoo Clinic on Friday afternoon, at the end of a busy work week. The Belize Zoo Clinic has been in the works for many years and received funding from a variety of sponsors including Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. At its opening, the zoo staff and donors honored Dr. Kollias for all of his hard work in advocating on the clinics’ behalf with a plaque next to the clinic’s double doors. Once just a hopeful idea, this clinic is now fully functional with a working pharmacy, intake area, and surgery suite. This is just one example of how the Belize Zoo works diligently to provide the best care to its animal residents.j


Thank you to all of the faculty, residents, and students that I learned from on this trip. Special thanks to Dr. Kollias and the staff of the Belize Zoo. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity!


Victoria Albano, class of 2021, is a veterinary student from Staten Island, NY. She received her Bachelor’s from Cornell University in May of 2015, with a major in Animal Science. She is excited about zoo medicine working in conjunction with conservation education. She hopes one day to work  as a zoo or wildlife veterinarian. If anyone has any questions or would like to talk more about this opportunity, please feel free to email her – vra23@cornell.edu


Rachel Somma (2020): Flights and Frigate Birds in Belize

I’m really afraid of planes. Like, really, really afraid of planes. There’s just something about bouncing around in a metal cylinder 40,000 feet in the air that gets to me. This summer, I went to Minneapolis for about a month (but that’s a story for another time), and the plane ride was so scary for me that I swore I would never voluntarily ride on a plane again. Then, I got an email about a week-long summer course in Belize, and I promptly decided that I would get over it.

Belize is a small country in Central America, about the size of Massachusetts. Its official language is English, since it was liberated from British rule relatively recently in history. Cornell partners with the Belize Zoo for a class called “International Experiences in Wildlife Health and Conservation.” The course runs twice a year, once in January and once in July/August, and gives a small group of veterinary students the chance to travel to Belize with a team of Cornell veterinarians to assist with different procedures that need to be done on the animals at the Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo is unique because all of the animals there are native to the country, and they were all “rescued” in some way: some of the animals were kept as pets by people who meant well but obviously weren’t equipped to raise a wild animal in their home, and some of the animals were injured or orphaned in the wild. The zoo serves to not only provide a safe place for these animals, but also to educate both tourists and Belizeans alike about the animals that live in Belize. The zoo’s founder, Sharon Matola, told us a story about an old man who once visited the zoo and teared up as he was leaving. When she asked him what was wrong, he replied that he had lived a long and full life, but this was the first time he had had the opportunity to see the animals of his country. This story, in addition to making me cry (don’t tell anyone), highlighted just how important the Belize Zoo’s mission is.

Rachel listens to a baby spider monkey’s heart.

Throughout the course of the week that I was at the zoo, I learned so much, both from the Cornell veterinarians who came with us and the zookeepers who took care of these animals every day. We got to tour the zoo twice: once during the day, and once at nighttime. This way, we got to see the nocturnal animals as well as the animals that were active during the day. The zookeepers who led the tours were so knowledgeable about all the animals, and it was clear that these people loved their jobs and the animals they took care of. We also got the chance to pet an American crocodile, hang out with peccaries in their enclosure, and get jaguar kisses from Junior Buddy, the zoo’s jaguar mascot (we sat in a cage and he licked us from where he stood on top of the cage…that counts as a kiss to me)!

I watched and sometimes assisted in multiple procedures, including an enucleation surgery on a jaguar with glaucoma, tuberculosis testing on spider monkeys, and multiple dental examinations and tooth extractions on jaguars, jaguarundis, a silver fox, and a kinkajou. My favorite case, however, was Maggie the frigate bird. Maggie was clearly in pain, had lost a significant amount of weight due to inappetence, and was just generally depressed; the zookeepers were upset that Maggie was suffering, and asked us to help her. Upon taking radiographs, we saw that she had severe osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) in several digits on both of her feet. Euthanasia was briefly considered, but the zookeepers and Cornell vets decided to try to amputate the infected digits first. The day after the amputation, Maggie was bright, alert, and clacking her beak like nobody’s business. Some people say that animals don’t have emotions, and I respectfully disagree, because that bird was obviously HAPPY that the source of her pain had been eliminated. Veterinary school is stressful, and it can be easy to forget why you’re here, but witnessing this sad, painful bird transform into a joyful animal reminded me that veterinarians make a tremendous difference in the lives of the animals they treat and the people who love these animals.

“This is Xunantunich, the Maya site that we visited. We climbed all the way to the top!”

I’d like to think I gained not only veterinary knowledge, but also “life knowledge” while in Belize. Physiology class turned out to be very relevant when I became extremely dehydrated; I will never travel without bringing some electrolyte tablets with me ever again (live and learn!). We took a field trip to the city of San Ignacio, where we visited various little shops and restaurants and talked to locals. It was interesting to see how people run businesses and support their families in a society that doesn’t have a Wal-Mart down the street. We also visited (and climbed to the top of!) a Mayan archeological site, where we learned about Belize’s history and culture. It was surreal to stand on the top of a structure that was built almost 1,500 years ago.

I never thought I’d say this, but the plane ride was totally worth it. I am so thankful for the Cornell veterinarians, who taught us a remarkable amount in just a short time, my fellow vet students, who made me laugh every single day, and the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, who accepted us with open arms. Both the veterinary and cultural experiences I had in Belize were absolutely incredible, and I would recommend this class to any Cornell veterinary student, regardless of their career interest.


Rachel Somma is a second-year veterinary student at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She is also concurrently pursuing a Master of Public Health degree through the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Rachel hopes to join the CDC’s Epidemiology Intelligence Service immediately after graduation, and then continue to combat the spread of zoonotic diseases and promote health among humans, animals, and the environment by working as a public health veterinarian for a national or international health organization.

EVENT: Saving Wildlife & “Wildlands” in Central Belize

What: The Zoo and Wildlife Society (ZAWS) will be hosting a lunch lecture with the education director at the Belize Zoo & Tropical Education Center, Jamal Andrewin.  The presentation will celebrate the partnership between Cornell’s College of Vet Medicine and the Belize Zoo, and it will cover ways in which students and faculty can get involved.

When: Friday, November 3rd, 12:00-12:50 pm

Where: LH2