Tasmanian devil returns to San Diego Zoo after pacemaker surgery

(Reuters) - A Tasmanian devil named Nick is back in his exhibit area at the San Diego Zoo after receiving a pacemaker to make his heartbeat normal.

In January, zoo veterinarians discovered that Nick suffered from an abnormally slow heartbeat and his cardiologist decided that surgery was in order.

Nick is only the second of his species on record ever to be implanted with a pacemaker, according to staff at the San Diego Zoo.

“His heartbeats were too slow and now the pacemaker is going to actually take over (pacing) his heart and is going to determine when to pace fast or slow depending on his activity,” said Dr. Joao Orvalho, a cardiologist at the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Medical Center in San Diego.

While pacemakers are routine in humans, implanting one in a marsupial known for screeching, biting and a pungent odor proved challenging.

“Typically when a pacemaker is placed, it’s placed within the neck area,” said Dr. Fred Pike, the surgeon during the procedure. “But because of the conformation area and the shape of the neck, that’s not possible.”

Instead, Pike placed the device in the animal’s abdomen and sutured the electrode to the heart.

The surgery was performed on May 11 and Nick was released from the hospital later that day. He is now back to feeding and screeching in his enclosure at the zoo.

“So far everything looks really good,” Pike said.

Tasmanian devils, which are about the size of a small dog, are native to Australia’s island state of Tasmania. The nocturnal hunters face extinction due to a rare, contagious cancer found only in devils - devil facial tumor disease.

The disease kills every animal infected and has no cure. It is transmitted through biting, a normal behavior among devils when mating or feeding. The San Diego Zoo’s four devils are free of the disease, the zoo said.

Reporting by Ben Gruber in Miami; Editing by Matthew Lewis