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July 1, 2008

Sea Center Staff Makes Valiant Effort to Save Beloved Mascot

Gordon, Sea Center Texas Mascot, Dead at 23

LAKE JACKSON, Texas — The thing most people remember about Gordon is how much visiting schoolchildren loved him. Sometimes they’d stretch out on the floor of the visitor’s center, in front of the glass.

"Am I bigger than Gordon yet?" a child would ask.

And Gordon, when he saw the kids in front of his home, would swim right up. Sometimes his skin would brighten with interest. Almost always, he would follow the kids down the wall of his display.

The 23-year-old, 327-pound Queensland grouper was for a dozen years the star attraction at Sea Center Texas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hatchery and research center on the upper Texas coast. He was loved and doted on like a family pet.

That’s why, when a volunteer noticed Gordon’s eye swelling in October 2007, biologist Jennifer Bixby was concerned. After a visit to the Georgia Aquarium, which has nine Queensland groupers on display, she began corresponding with staff there to try to figure out what was wrong with Sea Center’s mascot.

A Treatment Plan

A likely culprit, worms, was ruled-out when the eye did not respond to a medication designed specifically to eradicate the parasites. Prednisone, a steroid also used to reduce tissue inflammation in humans, helped.

"The swelling went down; not a whole lot, but enough where it’s like: ‘Oh, that’s got to feel better,’" says Bixby. "We knew this wasn’t a permanent fix. Also, the prednisone acted as an appetite suppressant on Gordon."

In March, Gordon’s eye began to cloud over with a bacterial infection. Biologists started the giant fish on a regimen of antibiotics stuffed into the Spanish mackerels that were his regular food, but the infection wasn’t responding. Something more had to be done.

Intervention

On June 22, two aquatic veterinarians from Georgia flew in to treat Gordon. The Georgia Aquarium has the world’s largest collection of aquatic animals — including nine Queensland groupers — and its vets were asked to assist in treating Gordon because of their extensive experience.

When Aimee Berliner, D.V.M., and Julie Cavin, D.V.M., arrived at Sea Center Texas, they immediately huddled with facility director David Abrego and other staff members to go over the plan for the next day.

"They showed up down here Sunday night," Abrego recalls. "We met with them to strategize the medical procedure with the idea that Monday we would do the deed."

Treating Gordon involved moving him from his permanent home — a 52,000-gallon aquarium, to a 350-gallon treatment tank and then to a 10,000-gallon quarantine tank where he could recover.

"We had talked long before-hand," says Berliner, associate veterinarian at the Georgia Aquarium. "To handle an animal that size and nature takes a lot. We went down there and Julie and I walked around with Jennifer to look at the setup and pre-plan and sat down to have a strategy session to make sure everyone knew what our plan was."

Staff members rehearsed their roles early Monday morning. The doctors outlined the procedures they would perform and the drugs they would administer to Gordon.

Worries

The move — the part of the procedure staff worried most about — was nearly flawless. The big tank drained quickly — ahead of schedule, in fact — and by 10:45 a.m., it was time to put Gordon in a sling and hoist him over the top.

Only, with the block and tackle connected to the sling, the nearly 6-foot-long fish lacked about 4 inches of clearance. Sea Center employees clambered up and eased the sling over by hand.

As preparations to weigh Gordon continued and he was being lowered to the ground, blood-tinged water spilled out of the sling. Alarmed, the veterinarians ordered him immediately into the treatment tank, which included about 70 grams of FINQUEL MS-222, also known as tricaine methanesulfonate, a tranquilizer designed for use on fish and other cold-blooded animals.

A quick examination revealed that Gordon had suffered a superficial scratch from a brass grommet that had popped out of the sling. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and the vets began Gordon’s treatment.

Success

After examining Gordon’s eye in detail, the Georgia Aquarium doctors administered or supervised six different injections — anti-inflamatories, antibiotics, vitamins and stimulants.

"The procedure itself went well," Berliner notes. "Everyone pitched in, and it went very well. The initial recovery went great.

There was clapping and hugs all around.

The procedure went so well, in fact, it took just 33 minutes. Gordon was in the quarantine tank by 11:30, and Bixby, the veterinarians and most of the rest of the 15 staff members who had helped move Gordon went out for a celebratory lunch.

"While we are at lunch — we couldn’t have been gone 30 minutes — we get a call from Frank and Mike and they say Gordon’s turning onto his side," Bixby says. "I drop my fork and the veterinarians and I race back. By the time we got there, he wasn’t even trying to become upright. He was breathing rhythmically, which was important to the vets. They weren’t alarmed — they’d seen fish belly-up for up to two days and then they were fine."

CPR in the Tank

But Gordon wasn’t fine. Sometime between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., he stopped breathing, then his heart stopped. The veterinarians and Sea Center staff flooded his gills with oxygenated water, dosed him with epinephrine and massaged his chest. He began breathing again.

Sea Center staffers also did something catch-and-release anglers are familiar with: four of them at a time gently moved the big fish back and forth through the water to keep oxygen flowing across his gills.

Because of the anatomy of bony fishes like groupers, it’s hard to know whether pushing on Gordon’s chest had much effect.

"You can’t effectively do true CPR from a heart standpoint," Berliner says. "We were trying to stimulate that by giving it a push, but it’s really more about breathing; it’s more the pulmonary portion than it is the cardiac part."

The team repeated the process again around 7 p.m., and two more times during the night. Bixby calls her friend and colleague Shane Bonnot, another Sea Center biologist.

"Do we keep fighting this and keep bringing him back every time his heart stops? Or do we just let him go?" Bixby remembers asking her colleague on the phone. "This is becoming a humane issue."

The answer: we have to do everything we can to save him.

"Resuscitation is actually something that doesn’t happen too often," Berliner says. "It shows Gordon was a fighter and he came back more than any other animal I’ve worked on. We gave him dopriam, epinephrine and we gave him calcium which can help the muscles move. We gave him sodium acetate to counter lactic acidosis and steroids and fluids and glucose."

The veterinarians do an all-over exam. Gordon’s "good" eye is cloudy and bloodshot, a sign that his heart is not pumping enough blood. Beneath his gill structures, tissue is beginning to yellow — a sure sign of liver failure. An enema to clear his intestinal tract produced intestinal lining.

Gordon’s organs are failing.

Letting Go

In the end, it wasn’t a lack of desire or expertise that let Gordon slip away. Sometime around 11:30 p.m. — more than 12 hours after a very hopeful beginning — Gordon’s heart stopped for the last time. Out of epinephrine and with the knowledge that irreversible damage had already occurred in the animal’s organs, Bixby and the veterinarians let him go.

"That’s when I got out of the tank and called David," Bixby says. "I told him: ‘David, he didn’t make it.’"

Bixby — a scientist and an angler who sometimes eats what she catches — admits she cried. Abrego too.

"I guess you could say he was the facility mascot," Abrego says, a day after Gordon’s death. "He was the most popular guy here. The volunteers loved him. We’d have birthday parties for him where seven or eight hundred kids would show up. He would come up to the window whenever there were kids around."

Unanswered Questions

Sea Center biologists may never know exactly why Gordon died, but the veterinarians from Georgia suspect it was an accumulation of a long illness and a bacterial infection. Of course, there is risk in any surgery or procedure that involves anesthia.

And while fish like Gordon can live four decades or more in the wild, 23 is considered well past middle-aged for an aquarium animal.

As charming as Gordon was to visitors on the other side of the glass, staffers say, he liked his space inside the exhibit. His caretakers now believe the initial trauma to Gordon’s head and eye was caused by a territorial face-off with another fish in the exhibit.

"The eye was very close to being perforated and exerting pressure on the other eye," Berliner says. "In the near future it would have caused very serious problems. It was probably painful. There was obviously a reduction in his appetite, so something needed to be done to make sure he was comfortable."

Abrego agrees, saying he’s not so sure the outcome would have been any different if he had decided not to treat Gordon. Everyone says they appreciate the lengths the visiting vets went to on Gordon’s behalf.

"The Georgia veterinarians were amazing," Bixby says. "They went above and beyond what anyone else would do. Giving CPR to a fish? That really doesn’t happen."

What next?

Gordon was acquired by the San Antonio zoo from a Houston man who couldn’t keep up with his rapid growth. Shortly after one of the curators moved over to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Sea Center Texas, the San Antonio Zoo started looking for a new home for the fish, which had outgrown his display there.

Even though he was only an adopted Texan, at Sea Center Texas Gordon quickly became the center of attention at the Visitor’s Center.

"He had a children’s book written about him. He had a fan club. He had his own song," Abrego says. "I’m not really sure what we’ll do next. We’re debating. Right now we’re just reeling from the shock of it."

For now, "Baby Gordon," a 50-pound Queensland grouper that looks like a miniature version of his namesake, occupies the enormous exhibit Gordon called home. But it’s not the same. In the Gulf of Mexico exhibit, where he was very much in charge, there’s an empty space; it’s a hole almost as big as the one Gordon left in the hearts of the people who knew him.

AR 2008-07-01


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