The fear was that she might have Brucella, the pathogen that causes brucellosis, a highly contagious disease found in many species of animals, as well as about half a million humans each year and can cause brain disease in dolphins.
“They took blood samples and did other tests that all indicated that she may or may not have it. They couldn’t be sure,” Jeffery said.
The only way to rule out the possibility was to perform a spinal tap to extract and test some of the watery fluid that surrounds the brain.
HEALTHY OR NOT?
That meant anesthetizing her—a huge deal because dolphins don’t fare well out of the water and it’s difficult to give them oxygen during a procedure because they breathe differently, holding their breath almost all of the time, unlike other mammals.
“Humans breathe in and out all the time, but most of the time a dolphin’s lungs are full of air so that it can stay underwater,” Jeffery said. “The anesthetists had to try to mimic that for more than eight hours during the procedure.”
Rimmy received the first-ever spinal tap to be performed on a dolphin at SeaWorld San Antonio in early December 2018. © 2019 SeaWorld Parks
In addition, a dolphin’s larynx, or “voice box,” can either point forward through their mouth or upward so that it goes through their blowhole, which can present a problem when trying to insert tubes to anesthetize a dolphin.
Fortunately, a team of dolphin and sea lion anesthesia specialists was on hand, including SeaWorld veterinarians Dr. Jennifer Camilleri, Dr. Steve Osborn, and Dr. Hendrik Nollens, as well as SeaWorld’s animal husbandry team.
Rimmy was sedated and then placed in a hammock on a crane and lifted out of the water. The veterinary team used ultrasound to place an intravenous catheter and kept her skin wet throughout the intensive procedure. They also had to keep her lungs from crushing since she was more than six feet long and weighed about 250 pounds.
Then, it was Jeffery’s turn. While Jeffery has performed thousands of spinal taps on dogs, he had to study dolphin anatomy in order to correctly account for the shape of the skull and the relationship of the brain to the spinal cord.
“While I initially thought it would be very different in dolphins—because of the shape of the skull and because the relationship of the brain to the spinal cord is completely different—since I’ve completed the procedure, I realize that it’s not so different from a dog,” he said.
The one big difference: “the needle was huge compared to what I use on dogs!” Jeffery said.