June 3, 2024

How and Why Veterinarians Dart at Fossil Rim

“Are you gonna shoot that animal?!?” asked a curious first grader as we drove by in the vet van.

You might have wondered the same thing if you have seen our vets carrying what looks like a gun around Fossil Rim. The truth is, yes, we are going to shoot the animal, but the gun is actually a dart gun. It can be unsettling to see vet staff aiming a dart gun at an animal, so I would like to explain how and why we do it. 

The How

The process for using a dart gun begins months before the actual shot. Every staff member who darts animals spends time training. We learn about gun safety and how to operate the gun. We practice shooting at targets to ensure accuracy when it comes to hitting a real animal safely. 

On the day that we are going to dart an animal, vet staff prepare by gathering all necessary supplies. A vet draws up medications or immobilization drugs in a syringe, then loads it into the dart. If we are immobilizing an animal, we pack up everything needed to safely handle the animal while it becomes sedated. We bring a blindfold to calm the animal and pool noodles. It may look ridiculous, but we put pool noodles on the horns of the animal to cover the sharp points and keep us safe. We pack needles, syringes, blood tubes, and any additional medications we need to give the animal. 

When darting an animal, a vet or trained staff member will make sure that they have a clear shot and aim for a well-muscled part of the animal, usually the rump. They gauge the distance and adjust the amount of power for the dart gun. It is crucial to find the right balance of power to reach the animal without causing harm. 

Veterinarian Jasmine Sarvi aims the dart gun at a scimitar horned oryx.

Pop! The dart gun is significantly quieter than a real gun, but you can still hear the shot. Once it has been shot, we make sure the dart hit appropriately and, if immobilizing, make sure the animal does not go down in an unsafe location. Once sedated, an animal care specialist supports the animal’s head to prevent potential regurgitation or fluid flow from the stomach into the lungs. 

The first thing after securing the animal is to take vitals. We take a temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate to make sure that the animal is breathing well and not overheating. Sometimes we administer oxygen through the animal’s nose if we think it needs a little help breathing. When we are sure that the animal is doing okay, we can move forward with our procedures. 

Sarvi administering oxygen to a scimitar horned oryx while transporting her in the back of a truck.

The Why

Darting is used for many procedures. It may not always be for immobilization; sometimes, we use the dart gun to deliver vaccines or medications. In these cases, we hit the animal with a dart that will fall out after it injects the vaccine or medicine. 

Another reason for darting is to address health issues. If we notice an animal is limping, has a deep cut, or is showing other signs of illness, we may immobilize them for the vet staff to get a closer look. Some treatments, like serious wound care, some medications, or surgeries might require immobilization and anesthesia.

Nyla the giraffe recently had to be anesthetized for a hoof trim. It is all hands on deck to monitor vitals and complete all of our procedures.

There are also some healthy animals that are darted. Many of the animals at Fossil Rim are too dangerous to handle while they are awake so they must be asleep for us to move them. We might dart them to transport from one pasture to another. We might dart them to move them into a trailer or crate to go to another zoo. Some animals can be trained to be moved around, but for others, this is the safest way to transport them. 

Finally, Fossil Rim is very active in zoo and conservation research. Sometimes when we dart animals, our main goal is to take samples or take measurements for a research project. These projects help us learn more about the animals so we can take care of them better at Fossil and in the wild. So, if you see a vet carrying a dart gun at Fossil Rim, don’t be alarmed! Our goal is to take care of the animals while ensuring everyone’s safety. 


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