A 6-foot, 80-pound stingray named Bee is alive and well today after the hard work of the OdySea Aquarium Animal Health and Animal Care teams recently performed a complex surgery on her.
The beloved honeycomb whiptail stingray, who has resided at OdySea Aquarium since the attraction opened in 2016, is on the mend after a rare and risky surgery saved her life in August, according to a press release.
Despite a recent setback in her healing process, the popular female ray has fully recovered after animal care experts at OdySea Aquarium diagnosed and surgically repaired a perforation in her small intestine.
“Any time you perform a surgery on an aquatic animal, the risks and complications increase simply by having to take the animal out of water,” said Director of Animal Care and Conservation, Dave Peranteau, in a prepared statement.
“But this surgery had never been done on her species, and we were going into it not knowing the exact location of the hole in her GI tract.”
Described as very social, the stingray with a striking color in a honeycomb-like pattern of large, black and yellow rings and reticulations was not doing well, the release said of how the usual healthy eater began refusing her food for several days, even her favorite, shrimp.
After Dr. Eric Anderson, director of animal health, evaluated Bee, who became weak and underweight, she was transferred to OdySea Aquarium’s off-site facility for further assessment.
“After a battery of tests revealed no definitive diagnosis, it was more than a little frustrating,” said Dr. Anderson in a prepared statement. “But we kept moving ahead, eliminating what we could, until we found answers for this much-loved stingray.”
Although ultrasounds proved inconclusive, her blood work indicated she was suffering from a possible infection. A gastroscopy and a colonoscopy both came back normal, so ulcers and foreign bodies in her stomach were ruled out, noted the release.
Since Bee was in dire need of nutrients, the team created a seafood gruel or “fish shake” made from blending shrimp, herring, vitamins, and minerals – components of her regular diet – administered through a long gastric tube gently placed through her mouth and directly into her stomach.
During the feeding procedure, a breakthrough in her diagnosis occurred, according to the release, noting that after dispensing her gruel, the team noticed a dark liquid coming from the back of her body, which contained undigested pieces of fish that was seeping from small openings or pores that communicate with her body cavity.
“We were shocked to see fish vertebrae in this liquid,” said Dr. Anderson. “Clearly fish vertebrae do not belong in her body cavity and she hadn’t had solid fish in about two weeks. This gave us a diagnosis. There was a hole somewhere in Bee’s GI tract in which food was leaking – and surgery was the only option to rectify it.”
Operating posed high risks including the exact location of the perforation in Bee's intestines was unknown, she was unstable, and would be under anesthesia while out of water. So, the veterinarian consulted with colleagues at other aquariums around the country who performed similar surgeries on other species.
Meanwhile, the animal care team built a customized surgery table for Bee, added the release.
Like fish, rays do not breathe air, but receive oxygen from water passing across the gills so the animal care team designed a sizeable table with a soft, foam top to cushion Bee’s wide body, room for Dr. Anderson to operate, and allow water to drain off as animal care specialists continuously pumped it over her gills.
They also incorporated a splash guard so when she “spit” or splashed the running water from her respirations, it would not land in the surgery site, the release said.
“For me, there was a bit of excitement for the surgery. A new procedure, a new opportunity,” said Dr. Anderson. “But the weight of the procedure was still with me as it was a lifesaving effort. I knew many of the animal care team were bracing for the worst but hoping for the best.”
Bee was anesthetized intravenously through a large vein in her tail and was positioned on her back, the release said, detailing how Dr. Anderson made his incision “done in precisely the right place and the one-centimeter lesion was almost immediately visible.”
Post-surgery, Dr. Anderson again prescribed a diet of soft components, so the team continued to administer the seafood gruel, but with no leakage, noted the release
For several days, fish filets and deshelled shrimp were slowly reintroduced to Bee. In a little more than a week’s time, she began digesting solid food again and became more active in her pool. But, after a month of consistently positive movement, she had a setback in progress, forcing her into emergency surgery again.
“Just as we thought we were in the clear, we found that her incision site had partially dehisced or opened. Although the skin incision was compromised, the sutured intestine wall was still intact,” said Dr. Anderson. “This situation is unfortunate, but not completely unexpected in an animal that lives in the water. We closed the site again and Bee came through this second surgery just fine.”
After several additional weeks at the offsite facility recovering from her second surgery, Bee recently returned to OdySea Aquarium’s Voyager exhibit where she is acclimating well to her old surroundings, and rejoined her buddy Bumble, a male honeycomb whiptail stingray along with other sea life in her exhibit.
The release detailed how in four years, Bee arrived at OdySea Aquarium the size of a dinner plate and “grew-up” in the aquarium’s innovative SeaTREK helmet dive attraction, frolicking with her animal care team and countless visitors.
“Bee is super sweet and really seems to enjoy human interaction, which made her the ideal animal for our SeaTREK experience with guests,” said SeaTREK Manager, Shannon Aldridge, in a prepare statement.
“Everyone who has worked with Bee can recall numerous heart-warming stories about spending time with her, how easy she was to train or her playful, affectionate side. She has made an impression over the years and no one wants anything to happen to Bee.”
Veterinary and animal care staff continue to monitor her.
“We were relieved to hear she made it through both surgeries and are thankful she is doing so well,” said Animal Care Specialist Jessica Tammen, in a prepare statement. “We all feel a lot better she is now back home on exhibit.”