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Pediatrician Treats Lemur's Chronic Allergies At National Zoo

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A 20-year-old brown-footed lemur receives an endoscopy — the first ever on a lemur — at the National Zoo.
Armando Trull
A 20-year-old brown-footed lemur receives an endoscopy — the first ever on a lemur — at the National Zoo.

Allergies are not uncommon amongst humans in the D.C. region, with pollution and other allergens sending plenty into sneezing fits. The creatures at the National Zoo aren't exempt from allergies either, as the small, furry senior citizen Red Oak would attest, if he weren't unconscious on an operating table.

"Red Oak is a 20-year-old brown-footed lemur," says Bob King, the primate curator at the Smithsonian National Zoo. "He has a history, even before he came here, of this seasonal — actually chronic — allergy."

King says allergies affect many zoo and domestic animals.

"The weather and the air quality in D.C. is not the best, especially during the summertime, so we see additional respiratory issues on some of those code red days," he says.

Red Oak underwent a nasal endoscopy — the first ever endoscopy on a lemur.

The procedure was performed by Dr. Rahul Shah, a pediatrician and ear, nose and throat specialist at Children's Hospital. He placed a tiny video camera in the lemur's nose, manuevering it so he could get a clear picture.

During the procedure, Dr. Jessica Siegel Willott, a veterinarian with the zoo, made sure the monitoring devices were in place so that the team could keep a close eye on his heart and respiration rate.

The video monitor showed badly inflamed tissue in the inner wall of the nose — a sure sign of Red Oak's respiratory distress. With the diagnosis made official, Dr. Shah and the vets are able to collaborate on an appropriate treatment.

This wasn't the first time Dr. Shah performed a procedure on a patient at the National Zoo.

"After the porcupines, everybody would have quills on their clothes and some on their fingers," Dr. Shah says.

While the procedure is obviously beneficial for Red Oak and his chronic allergies, Dr. Shah says that some of what he learns helps him treat human newborns and young infants, whose nasal cavities are similar in size.

"I learn a lot from seeing these animals, learning their developmental anatomy, and if we can take that back to what we do, then we can benefit our patients as well," says Dr. Shah.

Photos: Lemur Endoscopy

Video: Lemur Endoscopy

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