Jersey the capybara gets cancer surgery


Jersey gets a CT scan with help from Carly Andrews, BluePearl veterinary technician

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, can often be seen swimming on hot summer days at the John Ball Zoo.

But Jersey, the zoo’s 100-pound, 11-year-old female capybara, recently developed a medical problem. During a routine examination, zookeepers discovered a tumor on her right rear foot. A biopsy showed it was cancerous.

So now, veterinarians from the zoo and BluePearl Veterinary Partners have teamed up to fight Jersey’s cancer, and the tumor has been removed.

“Going above and beyond to insure every animal in the zoo is comfortable and receiving the best medical care possible is every day practice.” said Dr. Ryan Colburn, John Ball Zoo veterinarian.

Zookeepers noticed Jersey’s tumor developing shortly before her annual examination, which was performed under general anesthesia, as with many zoo animals. The exam included a full battery of tests, including blood work, radiographs and ultrasound. This exam also included a biopsy of the tumor.

Dr. Colburn decided to confer with Dr. Amanda Conkling, a board-certified veterinary surgeon with BluePearl, and it was decided that surgery was necessary.  Conkling successfully removed the tumor at BluePearl’s hospital in Grand Rapids.


Dr. Ryan Colburn, left, of the John Ball Zoo, and Dr. Amanda Conkling, center, of BluePearl, with Jersey

The staff also did a CT scan that showed the cancer had not spread elsewhere in Jersey’s body. However, in all likelihood, Jersey is not yet cancer-free.  She had small bits of the tumor that could not be completely removed without amputating her leg.

“Jersey really came through well when we removed her tumor,” Conkling said.  “The next step is chemotherapy.”

Conkling is preparing to implant specially made “chemotherapy beads” into Jersey’s leg near the incision where the tumor was removed. The chemotherapy medication contained in those beads will slow the growth of any cancer cells that may remain. Veterinarians hope this treatment will keep Jersey’s cancer under control for the rest of her life.   Zoo officials say they will carefully monitor Jersey.

Chemotherapy beads were considered the best form of treatment for Jersey because of her type of tumor. She was identified with a low-grade tumor that provides the greatest risk to the immediate area around the tumor itself. The treatment was developed in consultation with Dr. Christine Swanson, a board-certified oncologist with BluePearl.

Jersey has recovered nicely from surgery and her keepers report that she has been doing very well.

“Jersey’s case really highlights a great example of teamwork and collaboration. It is our goal to provide the best possible care for our patients at the zoo, and the collaboration between zoo veterinarians and veterinary specialists like Drs. Conkling and Swanson, truly helps achieve this goal,” Colburn says.

The zoo turned to BluePearl because of the clinicians’ expertise in surgery, oncology, and advanced imaging modalities such as the CT scan. To become board-certified in surgery and oncology Drs. Conkling and Swanson received extensive advanced training in their respective specialties.  BluePearl Veterinary Partners hospitals in Michigan also have specialists in cardiology, critical care, dermatology, internal medicine, neurology and ophthalmology.


Andrews, left and Colburn, right, with Jersey.

Jersey shares the South American exhibit with a South American Tapir, a pair of Southern Screamers, and a male capybara.  Capys are native to South America and are semi-aquatic mammals.  Jersey came to Grand Rapids in 2009 from the Bergen County Zoological Park in New Jersey.