Miami-Dade County

Zoo Miami’s pygmy hippopotamus has a cleft palate. How do you fix it?

Dr. Xavier Meaux, left, and Dr. Gabriella Flacke prep Aubergine for a CT scan on July 12, 2019.
Dr. Xavier Meaux, left, and Dr. Gabriella Flacke prep Aubergine for a CT scan on July 12, 2019.

Gabriella Flacke cringed as she looked at the CT scan images of the inside of Aubergine’s head.

She was hoping to see improvement from a surgery done May 25 to fix a cleft palate, a common condition in humans.

Instead, she said Aubergine’s soft palate was still too short, meaning food was able to get into his nasal cavities, a condition that causes rhinitis and ear infections.

Complicating the problem: Aubergine is a pygmy hippopotamus weighing nearly 150 pounds, and this kind of congenital birth defect had never been identified before in this species, said Flacke, who specializes in the breed.

“There is no precedent for how to address the problem,” she said. “No one’s ever done this type of surgery before.”

The staff at Zoo Miami first discovered Aubergine’s problem shortly after his August 2018 birth because food would come out of his nose.

The follow-up exam on July 12, 2019, helped doctors determine what the next steps will be in Aubergine’s medical treatment. Aubergine is one of three pygmy hippos at Zoo Miami; the other two are his mother and father. Jennifer King

Flacke said while Aubergine “does normal hippo things,” such as swimming, running and playing, the defect can cause problems later in life. With only 400 pygmy hippos in zoos around the world, Flacke said it is important to track these kinds of conditions, first to protect the animal and second as a learning resource for the species.

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Aubergine, a pygmy hippopotamus, underwent surgery in May to fix a cleft palate. Ron Magill/Zoo Miami

So in May, a team of doctors — including a plastic surgeon who works on humans — came together to try to repair the defect. The lengthy procedure involved using some of Aubergine’s tissue to extend his soft palate.

For two weeks, the hippo was given soft food instead of his normal hay and grains. Dr. Briana Danielson, a veterinarian who specializes in animal surgery, said the surgery by nature has a high fail rate because it’s hard to protect the palate. It’s even more challenging when it comes to Aubergine because he is an herbivore and mainly eats hay and grains.

After the surgery, zookeepers didn’t notice a marked improvement, Flacke said. Food was still coming out of his nose. So they wanted to check their work — which isn’t that routine when it comes to a hippo.

Dr. Gabriella Flacke scopes Aubergine’s throat during a follow-up exam on July 12, 2019, to determine if a surgery the pygmy hippo had in May was successful. Jennifer King

On Friday, Aubergine was given a tranquilizer, loaded into a van and driven to the zoo’s animal hospital where a team — mostly made up of volunteers — waited. He was quickly intubated and hooked up to whirring and beeping machines. While one technician took blood, another person secured his breathing tube.

Danielson stuck her gloved hand in the animal’s mouth to feel the tissue. It didn’t seem to go as far as it should, she said.

Aubergine, a baby hippo at Zoo Miami, receives a follow-up exam on July 12, 2019, to determine the effectiveness of a soft palate surgery he had in May. Jennifer King

Then the hippo was put back on the stretcher and taken to the Mobile Pet Imaging truck parked outside. Dr. Xavier Meaux, who handled the imaging, said he usually handles cats and dogs, but being able to help diagnose a hippo is very satisfying.

“It’s important information for the species,” he said.

Aubergine was loaded in the truck, rear-end first, put in the bed of the machine, then readied for a scan that would last more than 10 minutes. When it was complete, zoo staff gave him medicine to reverse the effects of the tranquilizer. Meanwhile, the images popped on the screen.

Dr. Gabriella Flacke, right, and Dr. Xavier Meaux examine images from a CT scan performed on pygmy hippo, Aubergine, on July 12, 2019. Jennifer King

Danielson and Flacke stared at them for a while and decided they’d have to look at the scans closely and come up with a new plan to fix the problem. Initial review of the images showed that the soft palate was still too short.

Aubergine was then loaded back onto the van and sent to his enclosure.

“We want him to live as good of a life as he can,” Flacke said.