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Those dam allergies

Ranger Rich

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Today we'll discuss, in what I hope is a mature and responsible way, one of our more interesting woodland friends, a tireless worker and master homebuilder who was so loved and admired in the old days that people trapped him, beat him with sticks and made him into a hat.

Helloooooo, Mr. Beaver.

(Did I hear some chuckling in the back of the room? I certainly hope not.)

Our discussion today will focus on Ginger Beaver and Duncan Beaver, the pair of sharp-toothed, gnawing rodents that live at our Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. (Yes, we're back at the zoo again, where my wife is a member of the board of directors. But unlike in last week's column, we'll be talking here about creatures that have evolved over time.)

Anyway, these are no ordinary beavers. Their story is quite remarkable.

Both beavers are allergic to trees. I am not kidding.

Ginger is a 4-year-old, and her partner Duncan is 5. They have, however, been spayed and neutered and are partners only on the surface.

To tell us the story of these special animals we bring in staff veterinarian Dr. Eric Klaphake, a lucky guy who gets to spend a few hours each day cavorting with beavers. The problem began in April, the veterinarian says, with each beaver scratching at its underbelly fur with front and back paws and even with their teeth.

"Then Duncan developed breathing problems," Klaphake says. "Rodents only breathe through their noses, never through their mouths. So for a beaver, a stuffy nose is a much bigger issue than it is for other animals. Eventually, Duncan even began sneezing and wheezing."

And I think I speak for all zoo visitors when I say this: No one wants to see a sneezing or wheezing beaver.

It got worse: "They began to lose hair on their bellies," Klaphake says. "They were uncomfortable and irritable. Beavers are nocturnal, normally only active at night, but they began wandering around all day, not sleeping."

Soon, the zoo had some exhausted beavers. Something had to be done. Testing ruled out hormone imbalance, infection and hyperthyroid issues. Then a skin test hinted at allergies. A veterinary allergist made it definitive.

"Ginger has wood allergies. She is allergic to several trees including birch, alder, black walnut and hackberry," Klaphake says. "Duncan is allergic to cottonwood, alder and elm. He's also allergic to ragweed and mold. Ginger is allergic to grasses, goldenrod and firebush."

Having beavers allergic to trees is not unlike discovering that our Mayor Steve Bach is allergic to bullying and lousy, old-fashioned ideas.

So the zoo has beavers — herbivores — that are, sadly, allergic to their main food items and the wood they gnaw to build dams and lodges. A movie about them might be called The Bad News Beavers, which should, if you ask me, co-star Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

Anyway, the initial solution was, just like with humans and even some dogs and cats, regular anti-allergy injections. Here once again is Klaphake:

"The challenge with beavers is that they can be pretty unfun to be around when they are irritable," he says, although most of us probably already knew that. "They are among the largest of the rodents — Ginger weighs 60 pounds and Duncan is about 50 pounds — and they have those big front teeth, and when you make them unhappy they come at you pretty quickly."

The injections ceased, and today the condition is managed with oral administration of anti-allergy drugs. Those drugs are squirted into their mouths in liquid form, which brings them a reward of willow branches. Or they're hidden in a chunk of sweet potato or fruit, a way of tricking or fooling the beavers — which generally is not a very good idea, but works in this scenario.

In fact, they've stopped scratching, their belly hair has grown back, and they are back to their nocturnal lifestyle.

"They are," Klaphake says, "happy beavers."

And when they're happy, everyone is happy.

Rich Tosches (rangerrich@csindy.com) also writes a Sunday column in the Denver Post.

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