Why Coins And Critters Don’t Mix

Dr. John Kaya
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Wednesday - April 28, 2010
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Of the 80,000-plus veterinarians who belong to the American Veterinary Medical Association, approximately 9,000 are board certified in a specialty. These specialties can be in a specific field such as surgery or dermatology, as well as designated species - bovine or avian, for example. With all the choices that lay before me as a new graduate, I decided early on in my career to venture into the world of exotic veterinary medicine. Actually, decided may be too strong a word. It was more like I stumbled into treating exotic animals.

How exotic? The following story may shed some light on this question. I was in my second year as a practicing veterinarian and started to get into a groove. Besides cats and dogs, my repertoire included birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, mice, turtles and Jackson chameleons. But just when I thought I saw it all, in walked (or actually waddled) a penguin.

Maka was an 8-year-old male black-footed penguin that presented with poor appetite and abnormal stool. Yes, penguin stool can appear abnormal, but don’t ask me to describe it, other than yuck.


Most animal hospitals don’t see penguins, but an occasional penguin would come into our clinic because the senior veterinarian at our hospital managed a colony of penguins. This definitely made life very interesting at times.

When Maka first emerged from his carrier, my instincts were to gently approach him and give him a big hug. The cute factor was just too overwhelming. As I slowly moved toward him, however, he let out a guttural penguin call and proceeded to snap his beak in my direction. Wearing my white doctor’s coat, I must have looked like a polar bear (albeit a smaller, less-imposing version). Kim, Maka’s handler, came to the rescue. She reassuringly calmed Maka down and explained to me the fine nuances of interacting with a penguin. Suffice to say, Maka’s physical revealed no major abnormalities and he seemed to be the picture of perfect health. By the end of the exam, I wouldn’t say that the penguin and I were good friends, but he seemed to smile when I imitated his guttural “call of the wild.”

We proceeded to evaluate Maka like any other patient that comes in with a poor appetite and abnormal stool. We sent a stool and blood sample off for analysis and proceeded to take a set of X-rays to help with our diagnosis.

As we waited for the X-rays to develop, Kim shared a few facts about our feathered friend. The fish, squid and crustacean diet of blackfooted penguins didn’t surprise me, but the fact that they were from the coastline of South Africa did raise an eyebrow. This is why Maka and his other colony mates did so well in Hawaii. I guess not all penguins live in a cold, snowy environment.

When the X-rays developed, we immediately saw the reason for Maka’s clinical signs. Three objects that appeared to be of metallic density were lodged in his stomach (gizzard). Afew days later, after receiving the stool and blood sample results, Maka underwent an exploratory surgery to remove the objects seen in the X-rays.


What did we find in Maka’s stomach? There were two pennies and a quarter. All three coins were corroded and partially digested, which led to the heavy metal toxicity experienced by our cute little buddy.

We visited Maka later that month to see how he fared. Kim reported that he was back to his delightful mischievous self. I took the opportunity to look at the rest of the penguins in their cozy tropical home and immediately noticed a few coins that lay at the bottom of the pond in their enclosure. The handlers and maintenance crew told me that it was a constant battle to collect the items tossed into the penguin exhibit. I then spotted the bold sign that read: “Do not throw items into the pond.” While reading it, I noticed the person next to me with closed eyes and a penny in his hand. I gently tapped his shoulder and pointed to the sign. “Oops, didn’t see the sign,” he said.

I explained what Maka went through and the gentleman was truly sorry for even thinking about tossing the coin. Gazing into the exhibit, though, I guess I could-n’t blame him. The penguins were just too adorable and engaging to take notice of the warning sign.

I guess this is one situation where the wild side would have done better in the wild.

Pet Tips: Treat animals in exhibits with respect. “Do not feed.” “No flash photography.” “Do not tap on the glass.” These are wise words to be heeded.

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