Acupuncture at the Zoo

Maryland acupuncturist, Tom Igegno, had a patient not everyone gets to see.  Tom got to treat a giraffe.

Although many states require an acupuncturist to be a veterinarian or practice under one Maryland defines the scope of practice as sentient beings rather than humans. Practicing on animals requires an animal certification. Getting certified includes taking  an animal acupuncture course at Tai Sophia. Veterinarians are still required to see the animal with in two weeks prior to treating and communication must be left open with the vet.  While the certification is normally just for companion animals, Tom was able to treat the giraffe because he was working under supervision.

A patient of Tom’s worked at the zoo where Gretchen the giraffe was housed. Gretchen was 23 at the time, which is quite old for a giraffe in captivity.  Gretchen had a lot of joint problems.  Her hoofs were misaligned and the veterinary staff suspected she had arthritis because of that.

By the time Tom was called, the zoo was hoping for hospice care in keeping Gretchen as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. Gretchen’s difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that it was a particularly rainy summer and her symptoms were worse when it rained. She did well for her treatments but often the symptoms came back with the next rain fall. On her bad days, she could barely walk and refused to eat.  Immediately after treatment, Gretchen’s appetite picked up substantially. She often started eating during treatment.

Asking about Gretchen’s diagnosis, Tom replied, ” I practice Japanese meridian therapy, so I diagnosed her as KI deficient.  I suppose a good TCM dx would be Ki Yin def, with localized hot damp BI.  Either way, we treated quite a few points on the KI/UB channels focusing on UB23, Ki3,6,7.  Then of course treating the joints locally.”

Although the zoo keepers felt that Gretchen improved post treatments, she was a geriatric giraffe and it was felt that keeping her alive past a certain point was cruel. Her time came about three weeks after treatments were started. Upon necropsy it was found that the major joints in all four limbs were worn almost flat. Tom says, ” I believe that the zoo’s staff had made the most compassionate decision they could have.  ”

While the zoo keepers were initially skeptical of Tom’s work, his patient gave such glowing recommendations they were willing to try it.  The compassion these people had for their charges and their willingness to try just about anything that might help left them open enough to notice the improvements Gretchen made during and after treatment.

So how does an acupuncturist needle a giraffe?  Tom says, “The biggest challenge was getting around her. The zoo knew that Gretchen was going to have issues as she grew. They spent a massive amount of money making a “Giraffe Restriction Device” specifically for her. It looked much like those boxes that the magicians’ assistant goes into to be cut into pieces except much larger. There were doors at different levels going from her hooves to her neck that could be opened on all sides and about 6 different levels gain access to each area of her body. There were also heavy duty padded straps that would go under her body to help give her some support and take weight off of her joints.  She actually enjoyed being in the unit. It did require quite a bit of climbing and reaching to get to some areas.”

Of course, Tom was unable to take the pulse in the femoral artery as would be usual in animals.  Apparently getting kicked by a giraffe sounded less than pleasant to him.

While it was a fascinating experience, it’s not one that’s likely to be repeated.  Zoo animals, however fond their caretakers may be, are first and foremost wild animals. As such they must be treated with caution. Acupuncture isn’t meant to be done while an animal is anesthetized and it’s unlikely that the average zoo animal is going to sit around and wait to be needled.

Acupuncturists in other states who are interested in treating animals should find out their state’s policies on animal acupuncture. In Washington state, where I live, a practitioner must also be a veterinarian to charge for animal services. While many people feel very negatively about this, the veterinarians I have worked with have had excellent education and most have been very open to talking about acupuncture and herbal medicine with me. As a cat owner, I typically choose homeopathy for my cats and have the greatest respect for the work my vets do, using classical single formula homeopathy. I am fortunate to live by a clinic where all the practitioners have accumulated many hours beyond the minimum required for the modalities in which they practice.

Tom adds that some states have no legislation about treating animals. While this means it’s not illegal, it’s not legally recognized either.

Wondering what Tom does when he’s not treating giraffes? Tom has a busy practice in Maryland where he relocated in 2006.  Before that he had practiced in New York.  Tom has no real specialty, feeling that specializing might keep him from seeing and treating the whole patient.  He typically sees about 50 human patients and 10 animal patients a week.  The pets have to be limited as they require house calls.  If you need to contact Tom about Gretchen or any other area of his practice, you can find him at Ancient Arts Acupuncture. Feel free to check out Tom’s photos of working with Gretchen here.