Bam Bam doing well after SB Zoo removes breast cancer mass
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Indian crested porcupine Bam Bam serves as a local example of how the disease impacts animals as well as humans.
Despite having undergone surgery for the second time in July to remove a cancerous mass from her mammary tissue, Bam Bam appeared in high spirits when the News-Press stopped by the zoo for a visit on Oct. 1. That’s not too surprising, as she was constantly cracking open and munching on whole nuts, her favorite food, which her keepers laid out on the lawn for her.
Having lived at the Santa Barbara Zoo since she was 2 years old, the now 16-year-old Bam Bam has been battling breast cancer since 2017.
After discovering some masses on Bam Bam’s mammary tissue, zoo personnel removed them and discovered that they had been cancerous masses, according to Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s vice president of animal care and health.
After this, Bam Bam was regularly checked with CT scans, X-rays and annual examinations to look for any recurring masses. None showed up on Bam Bam until this past summer, when another mass was discovered near her armpit, promptly removed and then determined to be cancerous.
Dr. Barnes told the News-Press that the most recent growth likely came about from a little piece of cancerous tissue that was left behind after the first surgery.
Though the cancer came back for a bit, Dr. Barnes said Bam Bam is at present “really healthy” and her condition is under constant evaluation.
“Right now, we don’t think she’s got any secondary masses anywhere else, but it’s definitely a risk given that she’s had mammary cancer so we continue to watch her and monitor her very closely,” she said.
As it’s not so widely known that animals can get diagnosed with breast cancer, Dr. Barnes remarked that Bam Bam and other animals fighting the disease are an effective way of bringing awareness to the illness.
“When we talk about breast cancer, we often think about it in humans, but it’s really interesting to note that it actually occurs in a lot of animal species as well. So it really was just another way to bring attention and focus to the breast cancer awareness campaign,” she said.
Animal keeper Cassie Funk has taken care of Bam Bam for the past four years and said it was “a little scary” when the porcupine was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“We hadn’t really done a whole lot with her medically even in the many years before I started working with her, and we weren’t sure how well she would take to the treatment,” she said.
However, Bam Bam put Ms. Funk and the other keepers’ fears at ease when she “recovered like a champ” and was back to her normal self not long after both procedures.
Both times cancerous growths appeared on Bam Bam, they were right near her armpit and therefore interfered with harness training. When the News-Press saw Bam Bam, her handlers were walking her around the zoo grounds on a leash attached to a harness, which was used in her training when cancer showed up on her for the first time.
According to Ms. Funk, the zookeepers were first tipped off to the cancerous masses when Bam Bam showed discomfort from wearing the harness and didn’t want to participate in training.
“It did interfere with that, but as soon she recovered, she’s so good at training, and we were able to train that behavior for her really quickly,” she said.
After undergoing surgery the second time in July and healing over the summer months, Bam Bam is now getting back into the swing of doing her usual walks around zoo grounds. Taking walks with a harness is something Bam Bam has only been trained for rather late in her life.
Ms. Funk explained that the porcupine is very interested in hanging out with her keepers and receptive to learning new things, so was deemed a good animal to undergo training when they were looking for candidates.
“She just has kind of the right personality to want to go out and see new things and hang out with us,” Ms. Funk said.
According to Ms. Barnes, one good tool for positive reinforcement when training Bam Bam is by giving her nuts, just as she had been given when the News-Press stopped by.
“Nuts are her absolute favorite. She’ll do a lot of things for nuts.”