Zoo animal care staff doesn’t only provide daily feedings and exhibit upkeep, and veterinary medical staff does a lot more than annual physicals. Taking care of exotic animals often means quick action and innovative solutions in emergencies, which can mean the difference between life or death. With so many endangered animals in the care of the Jackson Zoo, the death of a creature can also have grave consequences for a species.

The Jackson Zoo received two mated White Naped cranes in 2010, a seven-year-old male hatched in Cincinnati, OH, and a female hatched the Bronx, NY. These particular cranes are native to Asia, summering as far north as Mongolia and wintering as far south as Taiwan. Due to habitat loss, however, they are considered Vulnerable on the IUCD endangered status scale. (Although not “Critical,” steps are now being taken by conservationists to ensure their status does not degrade further.) Keepers discovered upon their arrival one morning that the male crane had broken his beak at some point during the night (how the injury occurred is still unclear). It was a severe break, with the upper portion of the bird’s bill (the maxillary rostrum) almost completely severed above the midpoint. The bird was obviously in a state of trauma, shaking it’s head back and forth. Mississippi State Senior vet student Megen Cummings said it was pretty gruesome. “When I first saw the crane’s beak, I thought it was impossible to fix.”

A bird’s beak is more than just keratin, the substance also in horses’ hooves, rhino horns, and the human hair and fingernail. The bill is also made of skin, thin capillaries, and nerve endings, and continuously grows and sheds throughout a bird’s life. The presence of those nerves makes the bill more sensitive than other keratinous features. A precise measure of the bird’s pain could not be established, but its level of agitation indicated it was definitely in some discomfort. Even if it hadn’t been an issue of pain, the injury was life threatening, as it was impossible for the bird to eat or drink.

However, long-time Jackson Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Michael Holifield (known to all staff simply as “Doc”) was on the case. Vet Technician Donna Todd was totally confident that he could save the animal, saying, “He is a genius. He is always coming up with innovative ways to help our animals.” The staff knew they had to act quickly, and had the bird in surgery within 24 hours.

“After Doc examined the beak, he knew exactly how to fix it,” vet student Cummings said. “He grabbed his orthopedic tools and went to work.” She assisted him as he reattached and reinforced the bill with a surgical grade metal plate and screws, plus some epoxy along the edges for stabilization. Cummings had seen metal plates used with regular fractures, but never a beak. “This proves that veterinary medicine is universal,” she said.

Only an hour after coming out of anesthesia, Mr. Crane was back in the yard with his mate, eating, drinking, and generally adjusting to the feel of his new “nose.” As the beak grows and heals, the plates should be able to be removed, leaving the bill stronger than before. Keepers are keeping an extra close eye on the bird, apprising Doc of any changes.

Thanks to the staff of the Jackson Zoo, in partnership with Mississippi State University, the now “bionic” crane will live and continue to represent his species at the Jackson Zoo.