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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 24th July 2011

There are people who say they would rather see a vet than a doctor. This is because the first question a doctor asks is ‘What’s wrong with you?’ whereas a vet has to find out just from their knowledge of medicine.

I was reminded of this, and why I don’t agree with the sentiment, by reading about the death of a giraffe at a zoo in Tucson, Arizona.  It is believed that the animal, and another which, at the time of writing, seems to be slowly recovering, were fed oleander foliage by mistake. The story doesn’t say whether the plant was Nerium oleander or Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander, but I suspect it was the former as this is the more common in the USA.

Though no results of a post mortem have been published, the zoo is quite certain that oleander was the culprit. The habit at the zoo, it seems, was to augment the giraffes’ regular feed with cuttings from plants in the extensive grounds. The animals’ normal keeper was away for a day and an apprentice, who clearly did not know enough about how to identify plants, fed them. On his return, the next day, the regular keeper noticed remnants of oleander leaves in the stalls. Though veterinary assistance was provided, Watoto died the next day from a heart attack. Denver, the second giraffe, had been refusing food, which for a ruminant can easily cause death, but intravenous fluids seem to have restored its appetite.

Nerium oleander

The zoo says that the apprentice, who had been employed for nearly a year, had received training in how to select trimmings to be fed to the animals and had fed the giraffes before. On this occasion, it seems that, as well as picking up vegetation from a location given by the groundkeeper, the apprentice took it upon himself to collect other material from a second site.

The zoo says it has training and protocols in place to prevent this sort of incident but, since these have failed in this case, it is looking at the option of removing all oleanders from its grounds. The zoo covers some 17 acres and, since the oleander, which is present on about one third of the perimeter, has been there since it was built 40 years ago, removing it would mean removing and replacing the perimeter fence. So far, the zoo has not estimated the substantial cost of doing this.

Given that this is the first incident in the zoo’s 40 year history, I wonder if improved procedures might be a better option. I always try and remember that money is finite and, though the zoo are talking about fundraising to cover the costs, I can’t help thinking that there must be other projects that would benefit animal welfare at the zoo more than this.

Nerium oleander

This is not the sort of incident that gets forgotten and will, I’m sure, be a central part of future staff training. Procedural changes, such as the ground staff removing all clippings from the oleanders immediately so that they are not there to be picked up, additional checks on feed about to be given to the animals and enhanced training, ought to be enough to prevent a recurrence.

Incidents of oleander poisoning are rare even in places, like parts of the Mediterranean, where oleanders are grown along roadsides as field boundaries and are available to animals in the fields or, such as horses, on the roads.

The incident that made me rethink my position in the doctor or vet debate happened in 2005 in Los Angeles. A miniature cow, called Fudgie, consumed oleander foliage from branches thrown into its field. It is thought that this was an innocent mistake by someone wishing to get rid of clippings rather than a deliberate attack. Fudgie was a favourite of the local primary school and her loss would have caused sadness for the children at the school.

Luckily for Fudgie, the vet treating her had a friend who was a toxicologist and was able to get very specific advice on the course of a case of oleander poisoning. Fudgie’s heart stopped twelve times in the course of a week but was restarted each time and, eventually, the poison left her system and she made a full recovery.

The vet and the toxicologist, apparently, developed a simple but effective method for restarting Fudgie’s heart. Whenever the animal arrested one or the other delivered a swift kick to the chest.

And that’s why I’d sooner be cared for by a doctor. If my heart stops, I’d prefer more advanced methods to be used to restart it.