Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
COCO THE MONKEY AND WONDER BREAD
It makes more sense to prevent crippling diseases through proper nutrition than to treat them after they occur.
IONCE WORKED FOR AN ADVERTISING OFFICE IN CHICAGO. HOWever, even then my real passion was for animals. I had been volunteering as a docent every Saturday at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo when I heard there was a part-time position available in the zoo hospital. I joked about quitting my fancy Michigan Avenue job and working there instead. In addition to being totally impractical (it paid roughly one-eighth of my ad agency salary), the job required substantial zoo experience, and I didn’t have any.
On my way home I often chatted with Abe, a crossing guard for the local school. He seemed to be one of the only people who knew I was serious when I talked about the zoo job. I didn’t have any plan to apply, but Abe knew it was my dream. One day I said to him, “Well, just two more days to apply!” He smiled, and replied, “You should wake up and make your dream happen.”
At work the next day, we spent forty-five minutes discussing whether the umbrella in an advertisement should lean to the left or to the right. Suddenly the colorful storyboards seemed utterly inconsequential to me. I stood up quietly, collected my things, and left the room. I went straight to my boss’s office and told him I was quitting.
In the interview, the doctors told me that keeping animal records would be the most important part of my duties. And that the job was part-time, with no benefits and no guarantees. It wasn’t glamorous but I wanted it with a passion that surprised me. Almost as much as their decision to offer me the job surprised me.
Magically, the part-time job transformed into a full-time position and became my life. For the next four years, I sat at an old desk in the basement of the bunker-like building, which was built into the side of a hill. My chair faced the iron stairs that the staff used to walk down from the public area into the hospital proper. This gave me a key vantage point for observation.
Watching that downward-marching parade of zoo staff day after day—the feet, knees, bodies, and finally the faces of my colleagues—I learned the gait of everyone at the zoo. I could tell who was coming long before the whites of their eyes came into view. The rhythm of the boots, the way their weight shifted on each stair, hopping, plodding, limping, or marching: everyone was slightly different and singular in the way they moved. It was excellent training for my later life as a vet, in which I would assess the idiosyncrasies of ambulation in animals.
The first time I saw my husband, Matt, his Red Wing boots preceded him as they came down that same staircase. I noticed as he approached my desk that he was ruggedly handsome, but all I could think about was the box of peregrine falcons in his arms. He was bringing two injured fledglings to the zoo hospital for treatment. As one of the founding members in the Chicago Peregrine Release Program, he knew how to protect wildlife, even in a city. My professional and private lives were about to merge.
After our first meeting over the peregrines, we next saw each other at a zoo party. I was on the dance floor, and Matt asked my friend Peri who I was.
“She’s too wild for you,” Peri replied.
That didn’t bother Matt. He was good at figuring out where wild things belong.
But on another day, I saw an unfamiliar pair of boots under two layers of pants coming down the stairs, and I couldn’t recognize the thumping clang on the corrugated metal. Even stranger was that this new person—who was out of uniform, by the way—was holding a monkey. If this was a new keeper, I thought, he had a lot to learn.
Bringing primates into the zoo hospital required a special protocol. They could catch many of our diseases, and vice versa, so we were given plenty of advance warning and they usually arrived in a van at the back door. This unidentified keeper had come through a public area holding a brown primate like a baby. A huge zoo no-no. He was also unkempt and seemed to be about forty years old, pale white, skinny, and he wore a hat over his deep-set blue eyes. His clothes hung loosely on his thin frame. His jeans showed through under the shorter pair of torn khaki pants. His arms around the monkey seemed to be shaking.
I jumped up and raced to the door, but he was already inside the hall. He had obviously been crying and before I could ask what I could do for him, he told me his story. The previous fall he happened to be walking by a pet shop that was being raided by the police. The shop owner was releasing birds and animals out of a window. “Take this baby monkey,” the owner said to him. I could imagine the mercenary shop owner’s panic, considering that the fine for possessing smuggled primates was even stiffer than for other animals. The man who stood before me now had taken the tiny creature and run.
“He was only a baby then. I got him some milk and whatever I could find,” he said, trying to smile.
Apparently the man was homeless, living in a cardboard box in the “Emerald City”—the long, winding underground thoroughfare lit with green lights near the Chicago River. Now his baby was a grown monkey and needed a better home. The monkey seemed sick, and the man admitted that he couldn’t take care of him anymore.
“I don’t have nothing else to feed him; I ran out of bread,” he said, trying to pull the hat down to cover his eyes, which were filling with tears.
“What else was he eating?” I asked, looking at the tiny frame in his arms.
“Only Wonder Bread,” he said proudly. “It’s supposed to help build strong bones and teeth.”
I tried to hide my horror. No matter how you may feel about Wonder Bread, it was not designed to fulfill 100 percent of the daily nutritional requirements of a baby monkey.
“He’s not doing so well,” the man continued. “He got real cold in the box with me at night—slept under my shirt. We share everything, but lately there hasn’t been much. He hasn’t been out of our box in a few weeks. He’s stopped moving around much. Hard winter.”
The monkey was in a crouched position, pressed against the man’s chest. I saw that all his limbs were abnormal. They were gnarled like little twisted twigs and his joints were as swollen as an old person’s, even though he was only about a year old. His black eyes moved quickly in his round monkey face, darting between my face and the man’s.
“I love this monkey, but I can’t take care of him,” the man said. “His name is Coco. Please tell me you’ll help.”
I didn’t see how this could end well, but I promised I would help.
On the one hand, it was a bad idea to take this monkey in and risk losing my job. Our policy was to just say no to any animal that came in off the street and to suggest an alternative solution. Long ago, you could bring an animal to the door of a zoo hospital and it might have been taken in, but things had changed. And I certainly was not the person authorized to make any exceptions for this monkey.
On the other hand, I wanted to help this sick animal as soon as I could. I wanted to help him and the sad man as well. But before I could even find someone for advice, the man suddenly stepped toward me, pushed the bundle of monkey into my arms, ran out the door, flew up the steps, and was gone.
I could feel the little guy’s heart racing, and suddenly he let out a moaning cry—he was staring at the empty staircase, missing his only friend. I thought Coco would try to escape, but then I realized that he was so stiff he couldn’t unclench his swollen joints. He was frighteningly weightless and had a sparse hair coat, but his grip on my arm was impressively strong. This gave me hope, despite the fact that I was suddenly responsible for a severely malnourished spider monkey.
Monkeys, like many primates, are omnivorous and eat a mostly vegetarian diet, with several strict nutrient requirements. This monkey, living on only white bread, at a time when he should have been developing his agile body, was lucky to be alive.
Joel, the zoo technician, came out of the lab. With a sigh, and a look of despair, he said to me, “Well, well, well, what have we here . . .”
The next second, the hospital animal keeper, Susan, appeared from the commissary. Immediately she ushered Joel, Coco, and me into the treatment room. We grabbed a blanket and gently wrapped Coco in it. He looked desperate and afraid. As I looked at his knobby joints and nonexistent muscles, I didn’t see how this monkey could ever recover his health.
“He’s a disaster,” Joel said. “It looks like he has scurvy and heaven knows what else.”
I’m sure we were all thinking the same thought: that Coco should be put down. But none of us wanted that to happen. Transfixed by the intensity of Coco’s gaze and the horror of his physical condition, we didn’t notice that the door was open. Our boss, Dr. Wolff, one of the zoo vets, had come in. We were caught. Thankfully, Dr. Wolff took one look at Coco’s thin hands clenching the blanket and his eyes wildly searching for help and decided we needed a plan to save the little monkey.
After hearing the full story, Dr. Wolff was suddenly optimistic. She had seen animals with scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency that was causing Coco’s debilitated joints. Never this bad, she admitted, but Coco could recover. We didn’t know the extent of any other health problems he may have had, but as Wolff examined him, we all felt encouraged.
One of the keepers was married to a woman named Beth, who had a sort of halfway house for wayward, unwanted exotic animals in her home. She had an old gymnasium on her property that she had revamped to keep the animals. She had all the permits and the skill, but would she take on such a desperate case?
Wolff finished her exam of Coco and found surprisingly few other issues—aside from the life-threatening emaciation and scurvy-deformed joints. We called Beth, who said she was willing to take Coco and would come to pick him up right away. Coco was fed and medicated, so we placed him in a cozy carrier and he was all ready to go.
We used our own moral code, and certainly bent or broke a number of rules that day. But we all felt how strong Coco’s will to live was, and if there was a chance for any type of decent life here in an urban world, he was entitled to it.
When Beth arrived, we told her about Coco’s initial diagnostics and treatments, including bland foods, probiotics, vitamin C, and appropriate food from the commissary to start her off. We engaged in a long discussion about the best diet, restoring the balance of his GI tract with foods like yogurt, and the need for plenty of vitamin C. We talked through physical therapy and what might be involved.
Beth had all kinds of equipment that would help Coco strengthen his muscles and bones. After six months of intensive physical therapy, a strict workout schedule, and a carefully prepared fresh diet at Beth’s nurturing facility, Coco was finally able to walk. He was like a child to Beth and he soon became part of her traveling educational children’s zoo.
Eventually as Coco made a full recovery, he became more relaxed and happy, and increasingly playful. He could climb anything, leap like an antelope, and he even learned to act a little silly—like a monkey. He was always gentle and sweet, and the homeless man’s decision and Beth’s determination had saved his life. And a little rule-breaking.
I treated a dog named CrackerJack. She was an adorable pit bull rescued from a hoarder. CrackerJack’s legs reminded me of Coco’s atrophied and clenched body. She had lived many months in a cage, eating only kibble, and not much of it. She was just over a year old and she walked like a geriatric. The foster owners didn’t know what to do, and they discussed options with their vet, which included putting the dog down. He also recommended they contact me. After going through the exam, I told them the story of Coco, which gave them hope. CrackerJack’s rehab protocol involved walking, while only partially submerged, in an underwater treadmill. This allows buoyancy to decrease weight on the legs so they can gently exercise without causing pain or injury. CrackerJack’s diet was changed to raw food mixed with canned food to give her body what it needed to heal. Today, CrackerJack is a happy, social, healthy dog—her legs have straightened out and her joints are flexible. Again, given the proper nutrients, the body wants to heal, and most times, it will.
Windtunnel is a sleek greyhound whose owner wishes she had known about proper canine nutrition years ago. This girl greyhound had been taken from the strenuous racing conditions of the track and put in a lovely home. There she was given every comfort and given a veterinary-approved “high-quality” kibble. She was also vaccinated, spayed, and received a teeth cleaning. Despite all of this, she developed many health issues. She became a picky eater, ate very little, and lost weight. She had chronic irritated, dry skin, allergies, dental problems, and a patchy hair coat, and she never seemed to enjoy her walks.
When I started treating Windtunnel, she was thin, nervous, and ratty-looking. She seemed to be an aging fifteen-year-old dog, although she was only seven. After just a few weeks of a high-protein raw food diet, her robust appetite for food and exercise was restored. She soon became well muscled again and regained a healthy hair coat. Her vitality also returned.
“Why didn’t anyone ever mention nutrition to me before?” her owner asked me. “I feel bad knowing I could have done something so simple to help her.”
Coco’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when an animal is fed a diet disastrously low in required species-specific nutrients, but it is also an encouraging example of animal resiliency. When animals are given the tools to heal, they often can. Even in the face of extreme debilitation, Coco regained his wild health.
There were no evolutionary changes in Coco that prepared him for the devalued food in a homeless urban life.
I treat many patients with crippling joint disease, and it is often caused by a deficient diet. These conditions are no less treatable than Coco’s were. With all the wheat and corn we feed our carnivores, it’s no wonder our pets are sick. My question is, why are we feeding our pets the equivalent of Wonder Bread?
It’s hard not to feel frustrated with the pet food industry and the hidden dangers of ignoring our pet’s dietary needs. We can certainly do better. A rotten diet will spoil all of your best efforts to maintain your pet’s health. Animals must be fed according to the requirements of their species. It’s not “you are what you eat.” It’s “what you are dictates what you eat.”
The power of an animal’s biological determination to regain health cannot be underestimated. If your pet has health problems—even severe, life-threatening ones—and you make changes to a proper diet, you may see a remarkable turnaround. The prospects may seem dire, but there is hope. Recovery may be possible. And the key is often a proper diet.