Tess the penguin offers rare opportunity for CSU veterinary hospital personnel

Jessie Trudell

Tess, the world’s oldest African penguin, recently visited Colorado State University to undergo cancer treatment for the sarcoma located between her right eye and beak. CSU veterinary students and personnel involved in the case described the experience as a rare and educational opportunity.

“Tess is currently doing great and back in her home at Pueblo Zoo,” said Dr. Matthew Johnston, a CSU veterinarian of Avian, Exotic and Zoological Medicine at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “The hope is that she is only going to need that one successful treatment, but we can do follow-up if the tumor reoccurs.”


Veterinary students examine the tumor located below Tess’s right eye.

Dr. Jamie Custis, a radiation oncologist, hoped to remove the small tumor using brachytherapy, a form of radiation, according to a release from the Department of Public Relations at CSU.

“We work with many zoos in the area, and I got an email from Dr. Kathy Wolyn down at Pueblo Zoo. She said, ‘Hey, I have this sick African penguin,’ and I said, ‘What can we do to help?’” Johnston said. “Surgery, radiation, even chemotherapy was brought up. I talked to the folks in oncology and they thought that brachytherapy, used on small tumors, would be perfect to try on Tess.”

Johnston also expressed enthusiasm at the rare opportunity that Tess provided for veterinary students at James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“It was my job to just make sure that I got a good history by doing the paperwork,” said Hailey Turner, senior student of small animal veterinary medicine. “I was also just there to help out with anything they needed.”

CSU small animal veterinary medicine student Hailey Turner takes detailed observations of Tess.

Turner was also responsible for researching appropriate anesthesia and drug requirements specifically for penguins before Tess arrived at the veterinary hospital. She expressed excitement at the opportunity to work with an exotic animal that had such special care needs.

“CSU is probably one of the best places for oncology and exotics and everyone just banded together to give Tess the best care that we could,” Turner said.

Prior to treating Tess using radiation, Johnston shared the lengthy precautions taken to ensure her safety.

“Any time we’re working with a geriatric animal, we have to make sure that everything else is okay first,” Johnston said. “We did full blood tests and X-rays, but for a 40-year-old penguin, other than some minor arthritis, she’s pretty darn healthy.”

After the procedure to remove the tumor, Tess was put in isolated recuperation for a two week period before returning to her flock at the Pueblo Zoo.

“The story of Tess is great, and the interns and students learned a ton from this case,” Johnston said. “It’s not everyday that a penguin walks into your waiting room.”


Collegian Reporter Jessie Trudell can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @JessieTrudell.