Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Dr. Royal and keepers give Jewel Bactrian Camel an
    acupuncture treatement.
Camel Pins Down Pain Relief
Jewel has been having trouble with her arthritis for some time. It limits the mobility of her front legs and seems to cause a lot of pain in her joints. Her doctor has tried a variety of drugs and therapies with varying success. But the pain she was enduring pushed Jewel’s doctor to try something a bit unconventional---acupuncture.

Now, every two or three weeks, a trained acupuncturist makes a house call to painlessly insert needles into specific parts of Jewel’s body. And it seems to be working! She seems to be more active, and she is moving better after her treatments. This would not be particularly unusual, except that Jewel is a Bactrian camel and her doctor is zoo veterinarian Dr. Tom Meehan.
“Jewel has an age-related chronic and progressive problem in her joints,” says Dr. Meehan. “Her legs make noise every time they are bent, and she clearly experiences pain as a result of the arthritis.”

When Dr. Meehan saw that normal treatments for the camel’s condition were not working, he felt that he needed to look into new ways to relieve the pain in Jewel’s joints. He considered artificial joints, which have been used to help a gorilla with similar problems at Brookfield Zoo, but they are not available for camels. Instead, he called his friend and colleague Dr. Barbara Royal. Dr. Royal is a veterinarian who focuses on the use of Eastern medicine to help in animal pain management. She is experienced in using acupuncture in her regular practice on cats and dogs, as well as in the zoo setting on larger exotic animals.
Sharp Medicine?
Acupuncture has been used in China and other parts of Asia for thousands of years. It was thought that, by inserting extremely fine needles into carefully mapped out points on the body, the body’s life energy (called “chi”) could be adjusted. These adjustments could be used to treat disease and limit pain. Acupuncture may have been used on animals for almost as long as it has been practiced on humans. Records show that Chinese veterinarians were treating livestock with the needles in the Chow dynasty (around 2300 BC). Because camels were so important to the transfer of goods on the Silk Road, the famed Chinese merchant route across the Gobi Desert, it should be no surprise that acupuncture for Bactrian camels was particularly important. Today, the treatment continues in Asia and is gaining acceptance in the West. The World Health Organization lists dozens of medical conditions that can be treated this way.

The needles used in acupuncture might be very different than you expect. They have smooth, rounded points, unlike the needles used to give medical shots, which are hollow and have a cutting edge. Acupuncture needles are so small that you can fit a few of them into the average-size hypodermic needle. The needles are inserted into specific points on the body, then left in place for a few minutes. Scientists are still not quite sure how acupuncture works. Some believe that the needles stop some pain impulses from reaching the brain. Others think that perhaps the needles stimulate the body to produce chemicals that increase circulation and dull pain. But most agree that acupuncture helps patients manage pain. Humans who get acupuncture say that the needles do not hurt but instead create a warm feeling. Jewel does not know she is getting acupuncture, but as Dr. Royal says, “Jewel knows she gets more treats---and she has learned that it is not a big deal.”
Poking Around
Dr. Royal’s treatments take place in the camel yard during zoo hours, in full view of the public. The therapy sessions are a multiperson operation---one keeper steadies the camel with a harness, another gives her treats (grain cubes and carrots), and Dr. Royal inserts the needles just as she would for any other patient in her office. Jewel does not seem to mind most of the needles, though Dr. Royal says, “There are some points that she doesn’t like---we save them for last and give her the treats she likes best, carrots.”

When Jewel is uncomfortable, she lets her handlers know. “A really cool thing about camels is that they can kick in all directions…so you have to be careful and observe the animal.”

Usually, keepers can see change in Jewel’s behavior a day after the treatment. Anecdotally, they think that she is more active and seems to move around more comfortably. The camel needs a tune-up every couple of weeks to help limit the pain, but as any acupuncturist will tell you, the therapy may not be enough on its own. Drs. Royal and Meehan work with the keepers to closely monitor the progress of Jewel's daily physical therapy. Additionally, nutritional supplements, and anti-inflammatory medication help to limit the swelling and pain in her joints.

Sticking with Science
With traditional diagnoses with names like “liver fire” and “internal wind,” it would be easy for scientists and medical professionals to dismiss acupuncture. Dr. Meehan and Dr. Royal are trying to get past the “voodoo medicine” stereotypes by collecting real scientific data on the camel’s condition. Since Jewel cannot tell her doctors if she feels better after a treatment, they are using videotapes to try to compare the lengths of her strides before and after treatment. (She takes shorter strides when in pain.) They are also looking at other institutions where similar treatments have been used to help other large animal patients throughout the world. Dr. Royal is investigating exhibit designs and changing nutritional needs for camels in zoos across the country. Since zoos are home to an aging population of animals, pain relief is a very important part of the vet staff’s work. Any treatment that can be used to improve an animal’s quality of life is very important.

Not anyone can wield the needles. It takes a fairly unique mix of training, knowledge, and experience to deliver this treatment. Dr. Royal is a vet with a very busy practice in Chicago. (She is usually booked three to four weeks out!) She is also a veteran of the zoo’s pathology program at the University of Illinois.

“Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years, so there must be something to it, and we have seen what seem to be good results,” says Dr. Meehan. “Dr. Royal has experience with this treatment at other institutions---she is a knowledgeable vet who adds some interesting, potentially helpful new expertise to our palette that really has the potential to help some of our animals.”

At Jewel’s advanced age, we do not know how long she will be around, but the vet staff at the zoo hope to make her as comfortable as possible. Acupuncture will clearly be a part of that effort. For her part, Dr. Royal is excited to help however she can. The work is interesting and exciting and the veterinarian, who is treating her patient on a volunteer basis, has a real affinity for Jewel. “She is a dream to work with, really easy.”




Acupuncture needles
Dr. Royal consults with her patient.
Dr. Royal consults with her patient.
Dr. Royal inserts a needle in Jewel's leg.
A close look at an acupuncture needle being applied.
A cllose-up view of the acupuncture needle being
    applied.
Dr. Royal works closely with keepers during the
    therapy sessions.
Dr. Royal works closely with keepers during the
    therapy sessions.
Drs. Royal and Meehan check up on Jewel.
Drs. Royal and Meehan check up on Jewel.
Drs. Royal and Meehan check up on Jewel.
Looking for a gift to get you over the hump?
Purchase a Jewel Camel Share the Care package online and help the zoo care for her and the other camels. Get a personalized certificate, animal photo, and more---just for showing you care.
Furry Films
NEW---Watch one of Jewel's recent acupuncture sessions (large Windows Media file).
(posted 10/04)