In 1991 when I started working at the National Zoological Gardens, there was no electronic system for capturing medical data for the treatment and diagnosis of diseases in the animal collection.
Records were kept in files and diaries and when it came to looking for past information, it was a rather frustrating and tedious task to painstakingly search through files and diaries. It would have been so much easier to just press a few buttons on a computer keyboard - and out comes the required information. This dream became a major goal and challenge for me.
In the early 1990's computer hardware and software was rather primitive compared to today's standards. Software applications to develop databases for desktops were limited.
Figure 1. Windows user interface for ZooDox developed in 1996.
Figure 2. ZooDox interface showing part of a list of animals and various tabs containing data specific to each animal.
Figure 3. A histogram of the monthly medical cases for the animal classes for 2011. A total of 3 742 medical procedures were performed.
Figure 4. A histogram of animals brought to the Zoo and the monthly trends for the past five years. The total number of animals brought in was 3 742.
In the early 1990's the NZG became a member of the International Species Information System (ISIS) based in Minnesota, USA. The Director of the NZG was the Chairman of the ISIS Board at the time. The Arks Animal Record Keeping System (ARKS) was developed as an electronic inventory by ISIS to record all information of animals kept in a zoo, including species, identifiers, sex, age, parents, enclosure, breeding records, disposition records and husbandry notes. This programme had limited capabilities for recording detailed medical records for an animal.
A dedicated program called MedARKS was written by a motivated American Zoo Veterinarian Dr Andy Teare. MedARKS was designed to complement the ARKS programme where detailed medical data were collected on each animal in a zoo. New animals are logged onto the system with a unique accession number.
In the early days of MedARKS it was required that an animal had to be already accessioned on the system before medical data could be entered. To find an existing animal required having to know its scientific name. A more user friendly system was required for our purposes where we were treating animals that were not yet accessioned on the system on a daily basis.
We decided to build our own system which would meet our specific needs. Today ISIS is used by over 800 zoos and aquaria in almost 80 countries. The ISIS database contains information on 2.4 million animals of 10 000 species. New software from ISIS — the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) which is due to be rolled out later this year — is web-based, with husbandry and veterinary data integrated into one system.
In 1991, dBase (Ashton Tate) and Paradox (Borland) were the main off-the-shelf packages for developing databases for PCs which were at the time running on Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system using the graphical user interface Windows. In about June 1991 the first version of ZooDox was up and running, with daily veterinary reports being submitted to our Animal Databank where the ARKS programme was used and populated with relevant data which the vets were generating on a daily basis. These included the sexing of birds, marking of animals with ear notches, ear tags or microchips, moving an animal to another enclosure, and listing of animals that were in the hospital.
Data for animals that were not yet accessioned on the ARKS programme could still be captured on the ZooDox system. Finding previous medical histories by searching the common name or any identity of an animal was easy. Various medical reports could be generated and information was now at the tip of our fingers.
In 1992 Borland released a Windows version of Paradox, but upgrading to this software required a total re-development of the DOS form of the database — a daunting task. Eventually in 1996 when hardware, operating systems and software were developing at a rapid pace, most DOS programmes were rapidly becoming redundant and it was essential to keep pace with the new technologies, so ZooDox was re-written using Paradox for Windows by Borland. The user interface is shown in Figure 1 and 2.
Credible and trustworthy data
To-date there are 19 640 patient records; 100 124 medical records; 6 126 hospital records; 5 461 chemical immobilisation records; 1 629 vaccination records and 10 676 post mortem records. There are also data recorded for each patient on weight, parasite control records, clinical pathology records, laboratory reports.
When an animal is sent to another zoo, it is accompanied by a detailed medical history. Complex queries can be made with a report which can be saved on the system for future use. Over the years the database has evolved, with new functionality being added as the need arises and it is now quite a large programme with "millions" of lines of code.
To maintain a database of this nature requires considerable dedication by the administrator, consistency with data input, and discipline with timely entry of the data. Continual checks on data entry are made for accuracy and consistency as it is important that data must be credible and trustworthy.
The database has become a very useful tool in the Veterinary Hospital. Veterinary staff constantly look up previous treatments and drug dosages used on animals in the past. Mining of the database is conducted to detect trends in disease and occurrences of disease in animals.
Figure 3 shows 3 742 medical cases performed by veterinary staff and the monthly trend for 2011. Each month shows the proportion of the animal classes that were treated, with peaks in April and July where large groups of animals in enclosures are given treatments for parasites, and where the drugs and dosages are entered automatically by the computer for each animal that is treated in the specific enclosure. Example — de-worming medication is added to antelope cubes and an enclosure containing a number of antelope would be fed the medicated cubes for five days. This record will be added to each antelope's medical record in ZooDox. Other animals can also be de-wormed by adding medication to the food or drinking water.
One of the functions which the National Zoo performs for the community is to accept wildlife that is found by the public, such as injured birds along the road, hedgehogs or tortoises in gardens, animals confiscated by conservation bodies from people who do not have permits and confiscations of illegal trade at airports. All these "problem" or "donated" animals come to the Veterinary Hospital where they are examined and treated and, where possible, are sent to an accredited rehabilitation centre where they are placed back in the wild, but only if the release of such an animal is appropriate.
If they are not suitable for release due to extensive injury or for other reasons, they may be euthanised or retained in captivity. Over the past five years 3 742 animals were brought to the Zoo (Fig 4). There is an obvious trend noted that more animals are brought to the NZG during summer months than winter months.
It is wonderful to have such data and reporting capability at one's fingertips, but it comes at a price of spending time entering the data accurately and consistently for the information to be meaningful when it is required.
Dr Ian Espie, Chief Veterinarian, NZG
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