There are only seven mountain tapirs in human care in the United States, two of which – including Cofan, pictured here – live at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Photo: CMZoo
Cofan, a 17-year-old male mountain tapir at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZoo), was displaying some changes in behavior in December 2020. His keepers said he had become uncoordinated, was not shifting to his outdoor yard, eating less and losing weight.
His condition became serious enough that the veterinary team at CMZoo tapped longstanding partners at Colorado State University to assist with surgery. In mid-February, Cofan had a kidney removed and has been recovering after the successful surgery. Dr. Matt Johnston, a veterinarian and associate professor of avian, exotic and zoological medicine led the university team.
“Cofan is normally eager to participate in training and has a healthy appetite,” said Michelle Salido, lead tapir keeper at CMZoo. “When we noticed he wasn’t himself, we started working to find out why, and ultimately discovered he was dealing with kidney stones that had damaged his kidney to a point that he’d be better off long-term without it.”
There are only seven mountain tapirs in human care in the United States, two of which live at CMZoo. Because mountain tapirs are so rare, keepers rely on their experience with Cofan and Carlotta, a 26-year-old female mountain tapir, to diagnose any issues.
Tapirs’ closest relatives are horses and rhinos, so knowledge of these other species can help the team care for them.
First-ever surgery on a tapir
“Our ultrasounds showed that he had some kind of kidney abnormality,” said Dr. Jon Romano, head veterinarian at CMZoo. “We reached out to CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital and put together a team of specialists that helped save Cofan’s life. This is the first time this surgery has ever been done for this species, and that was only possible because of the collaborative relationship we’ve built with CSU over the years.”
Johnston led an 11-person CSU team of equine specialists, radiologists, anesthesiologists and surgeons that quickly made the trip to help Cofan.
The collective team identified the kidney stones that were causing the enlargement and damage to Cofan’s left kidney and went right into surgery.
“We tend to think of tapirs as being similar to horses, and our equine team was able to contribute important expertise to Cofan’s case,” said Johnston.
With fewer than 2,500 tapirs remaining in native habitats, Cofan serves as an ambassador for his critically endangered species. According to CMZoo, his charming nature helps people fall in love with tapirs and educates the public on how to help protect his wild counterparts.
This veterinary case will also help future tapirs in human care and possibly in the wild.
“Cofan continues to help his species by helping us learn more about how to care for mountain tapir,” said Salido. “What we learn from this case will be shared with other tapir keepers and organizations that monitor wild tapir, with the hope that other tapir can avoid or overcome similar issues.”
The tapir isn’t out of the woods quite yet. But his care team is cautiously optimistic. So far, Cofan has been urinating regularly and eating better than he was before surgery – both good signs he’s on the mend.
Cofan’s care team has adjusted his diet to help him avoid developing stones in his remaining kidney, which should be able to sustain him well, as long as the organ stays healthy. He also received subcutaneous fluids voluntarily after his surgery, so he was hydrated as he recovered.
“He’s doing so great, considering he’s been through major surgery,” said Salido. “He is off of all pain medications, has been enjoying his yard again, and continues to eat well, so those are good signs.”
CMZoo keepers and veterinary staff will keep close eyes on Cofan and monitor his progress as he heals.
Story by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Marketing and Public Relations