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Happy feat: World’s oldest penguin undergoes cancer radiation at Colorado State University vet hospital

A toddler on Tuesday peered through thick glass as Tess – the world’s oldest , representing an endangered species set to vanish in the child’s lifetime – dove into her pool at the . It was the penguin’s first swim since veterinarians used specialized radiation to treat an aggressive form of on her face.

At 40 years old, Tess is the oldest known African penguin, the matriarch of a dying species and a beloved member of the penguin exhibit at the Pueblo Zoo in southern Colorado. For the veterinarians who treated Tess for skin cancer in early December, she is a beacon on a planet with a dwindling variety of creatures.

“Some people would ask, ‘Why are you putting all of these resources into an individual animal?’ But, if this individual animal can tell a story that helps globally with the African penguin, then it’s all worth it,” said Dr. Matthew Johnston, a CSU veterinarian in Avian, Exotic and Zoological Medicine at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

An unusual patient

Two weeks ago, Tess ruffled her feathers and waddled under exam-room chairs as a CSU veterinary team prepared to treat the sarcoma between her beak and right eye.

“We have a whole team ready to be involved,” Johnston said. “It’s fun to collaborate to treat a species we rarely get to work with. It’s the perfect opportunity to showcase radiation therapy in non-traditional patients.”

Tess’s condition is rare in penguins housed in indoor exhibits. Yet, aside from the cancer diagnosis, Tess seems the picture of health – notable because African penguins typically don’t live past 20 years in the wild.

“If you didn’t know her, you would never guess she’s as old as she is,” said Dr. Kathy Wolyn, Pueblo Zoo veterinarian. “That’s why we wanted to pursue further treatment for her tumor.”

The tumor was discovered a couple months ago: Zookeepers noticed injuries around Tess’s eyes that failed to heal after a minor squabble over a nest box.

“We’re lucky it was where it was, so we could see it,” said Melanie Pococke, the zoo’s main penguin keeper. Had the tumor been anywhere else, it could have been concealed by her dense, waterproof feathers, which number about 100 per square inch.

Wolyn surgically removed the mass and sent tissue samples to the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital for analysis. The tumor was cancerous, and quickly reemerged after the initial procedure.

“Whenever we remove a mass, there are always microscopic pieces that get left behind,” Wolyn explained. “With my capabilities at the zoo, I could only do so much. CSU gives us access to new knowledge and technology.”

Team Tess to the rescue

Tess’s treatment at CSU involved veterinarians, residents, interns, staff and students from exotics, oncology, radiology, anesthesiology and other specialty units. It was clear before the penguin’s radiation treatment that she was a rare bird.

“I’m nervous. This is definitely a first time for me, and I feel like everyone is watching me,” said fourth-year veterinary student Hailey Turner as she administered a pre-anesthetic medication in Tess’s breast.

A CT scan confirmed a 1-by-1-by-.5 centimeter tumor, about the size of a pinto bean, on the right side of Tess’s face. Dr. Jamie Custis, a radiation oncologist, hoped the small tumor could be mitigated with a single 21-minute, 59-second dose of electronic brachytherapy – a form of radiation delivered with state-of-the-art technology, which focuses beams so well that nearby tissues and organs are not harmed.

Dr. Matt Johnston examines Tess after her radiation treatment at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Dr. Matt Johnston examines Tess after her radiation treatment at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

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Source: Colorado State University