Brookfield Zoo vets take first-ever CT scan of live rhino as part of lifesaving treatment

BROOKFIELD, Ill. — Treating a sinus infection is usually a simple affair in a human, but it's a life-threatening condition for black rhinos like 7-year-old Layla, forcing the Brookfield Zoo's veterinarians to pioneer new methods to save the endangered animal's life.

Rhinos breathe primarily through their nose, so when Layla’s keepers saw her drooling and struggling for air, they knew something was wrong. Medication wasn’t helping enough with the sinus infection, so doctors drilled holes through the thick bone in her skull to clear the infection this past January. Think of it as a temporary blowhole to help Layla breathe and recover.

"Had we not done that surgery, I’m confident Layla would no longer be with us,”said Dr. Mike Adkesson, VP of Clinical Medicine at the Brookfield Zoo.

Experts said her condition is still "not survivable in the wild," so they turned to something that's never been done: Taking a CAT scan on a live rhino. It's a complicated effort when the patient tips the scales at more than a ton.

“As far as we know, this is the first time anyone has done a CT scan on an adult rhino, so we’re in uncharted waters," Dr. Atkesson said. "This will give us an unparalleled look inside a rhino’s skull and guide our treatment.”

It’s a delicate and painstaking task involving  weeks of preparation and heavy equipment. Crews practiced using bags of concrete to simulate Layla’s weight during practice runs.

The only way to get the CT images was to move Layla into the Pacyderm house on the side usually inhabited by zoo visitors. So when the day came, more than a dozen assistants shifted a knocked-out Layla onto a hard plastic sled for the journey. When she didn't fit through the gate, they lifted her high in the air instead. Luckily the equipment held, and they eventually moved Layla's body into the massive CT scan machine.

The scans only take minutes, compared to the hours crews spent just to get Layla there.

"We have high hopes right now that we’re going to be able to get this infection cleared up and pull her through this. We now have the info we needed to target into a specific area and get that affected tissue removed and hopefully get this infection cleared up," Dr. Adkesson said.