Racine kangaroo fights cancer, has pouch removed

RACINE (WITI) -- A female kangaroo at the Racine Zoo had her pouch surgically removed in an attempt to combat cancer and, despite the odds, got a "second chance" at life.

Suli, a 16-year-old red kangaroo, had always seemed to be physically OK. Despite a case of spinal arthritis discovered years earlier, she appeared to be a fit and healthy kangaroo.

However, in January 2013, the zookeepers at Racine Zoo received some unfortunate news that indicated otherwise. During a routine checkup, Suli's veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Nelson of Bristol Veterinary Service, discovered a large mass on Suli's mammary glands, inside of the kangaroo's pouch.

The outlook was not good.

Tests on the mound indicated the mass was a carcinoma. And after discussing Suli's situation with other doctors, it was clear to Nelson that Suli's future was not promising.

As Suli's mass continued to grow,  Nelson and his team from the Racine Zoo had to decide how to proceed - putting the animal down, letting the cancer run its course or attempting surgery were among some of the most viable alternatives. However, one of the most prominent questions Nelson and his team faced concerned the quality of life of the kangaroo - would it be humane to let her live in pain or discomfort?

After sifting through their options, the team determined they would help the kangaroo fight for her life. They began to prepare Suli for surgical removal of the tumor.

And fortunately for Suli, the surgery went smoothly - the surgery site healed well and there were no signs of infection or any new lumps.

However, one major drawback of the surgery included removing most of the kangaroo's pouch to extract the tumor. Normally, this absence of a pouch would be problematic for a kangaroo said Angie Kutchery, animal care specialist at the Racine Zoo. A joey - the name for a baby kangaroo - spends the first 235 days of life in the mother's pouch.

However, there are no male kangaroos at the Racine Zoo and hence no prospects for Suli to rear a joey. Because of this, the zookeepers at Racine Zoo do not expect Suli to experience any complications from not having a pouch in this setting.

Staff and zookeepers acknowledge that Suli's recovery has been somewhat of a success story and are pleased they decided on the appropriate course of action in this situation. Unfortunately however, making these tough calls are not uncommon for zoo keepers said Kutchery.

“These animals are under our care and are our responsibility,” said Kutchery. “They can't tell us when something is wrong or what hurts. It is our job to pay attention to the details and be their voice."

Though Suli's future currently looks bright, the kangaroo is not quite in the clear. Kutchery acknowledges there may be some difficult decisions to make down the road - the cancer could return or her spinal arthritis could worsen and begin to negatively affect Suli's quality of life.

However, for now, Suli is doing alright - she was moved back to the Racine Zoo and currently can be seen at the Walkabout Creek exhibit.