Medicine Pseudoscience Quackery Television

Animal Planet: Showcasing acupuncture quackery at the San Diego Zoo

A recent episode of The Zoo:San Diego featured acupuncture quackery at the San Diego Zoo. But it’s even worse than that. Tembo the elephant was subjected to more than just acupuncture quackery.

Being the boring old farts that we are, my wife and I typically spend our Saturday nights watching TV, usually Animal Planet. In particular, we like Dr. Jeff, and we like The Zoo, which is focused on the San Diego Zoo this season. Animal Planet frequently shows the previous week’s episode as well, and so it was that I came across a preview for an episode of The Zoo featuring acupuncture on an elephant.

Et tu, San Diego Zoo?

So I decided to watch, rerun or not, in order to see how bad the episode was. (After all, I hadn’t seen it yet.) Sadly (and I do mean sadly), another major segment in the show featured the zookeepers and staff preparing to send a panda who had been at the San Diego Zoo for 23 years back to China. That storyline was genuinely moving, as ono zookeeper who had cared for the panda for over 20 years had to deal with sending her charge away. I’m just glad that my wife and I got to see the pandas last year, before they were shipped back to China.

Then, sadly, but for a much different reason, there was the other storyline. It featured Tembo, the “retired Hollywood elephant.” She’s 48 years old and apparently has arthritis in her rear hip and one of her legs. The segment started out benignly enough, with a zookeeper approaching the elephant exhibit with food and to observe how she moves to assess the stiffness in her right front leg. It looks like a fairly standard training/assessment session. A veterinarian accompanied the zookeeper and noted that she thought that Tembo was favoring a leg.

Then I saw it, the zookeeper saying:

To address the pain that Tembo’s been experiencing, it’s important for us to always think out of the box. So Dr. Beth will be coming in the next few weeks to provide her with some acupuncture. Dr. Beth has provided acupuncture treatment to a variety of animals at the zoo with great success. Tembo’s the first elephant we’ll be attempting that with, and we’re really hopeful to see some positive effects with it.

My reaction? I bet you can guess:

Godzilla facepalm

Sadly, apparently to the staff at the San Diego Zoo, “outside the box” means “embrace quackery”. My first reaction (after the facepalm, that is) was: How do the zookepers at the San Diego Zoo know that the acupuncture on the other animals has had “great success”? I’ve discussed animal acupuncture here on a few occasions before, mostly examples on local news shows promoting acupuncture for dogs and, in one case, a non-local newspaper promoting acupuncture for cats. As veterinarian David Ramey has described, there’s no good evidence that acupuncture works in animals, to which I would add that there’s also no good evidence that acupuncture works in humans, either. He also notes, as we have bene saying all along, that there’s no good evidence that acupuncture points exist in people, much less animal. Indeed, as Harriet Hall and Steve Novella described just last week, even acupuncturists can’t define where acupuncture points are in humans, nor can they agree where they are.

As I’ve said before many times, it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles in (“acupuncture points” or not) and it doesn’t even matter if you stick the needles in (toothpicks work as well), the effect is the same, nonspecific and placebo. As we say, acupuncture is a theatrical placebo. In its present form, it isn’t even ancient, particularly for animals. Indeed, the filiform needles currently used by acupuncturists were only introduced in the 1930s.

But, wait, you say! Can there be placebo effects in animals? Of course there can be, but it’s not the same as placebos in humans. Rather it’s something that’s sometimes called transferred or caregiver placebo effects. After all, animals can’t tell us how they are doing or if they’re in pain. The way we assess how animals feel is by what we observe, and it’s known that humans who think their dog has been treated is more likely to say that the dog’s health has improved. Basically, acupuncture is even more clearly quackery in animals than it is in humans, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a fraud. So it’s incorrect that animals aren’t subject to placebo effects; it’s just that those effects are mediated through the caregiver.

So about halfway through the episode, we’re treated to Dr. Beth Bicknese and Lead Mammal Keeper Robbie Clark bringing Tembo into a building and subjecting her to needles stuck into her skin. Before this, Dr. Beth describes how she was certified in animal acupuncture and has been using acupuncture on animals around the zoo for a while now. She opines about how chronic pain, such as what Tembo has been experiencing from her arthritis is just the sort of condition that responds well to acupuncture. She describes how regular acupuncture needles are too thin and weak to get through the thick skin of an elephant. Her solution to this problem? She uses larger syringe needles, with the acupuncture needles going through it. (Who knew that the Seldinger technique works for acupuncture?) While she’s getting ready to stick needles into Tembo, Dr. Beth continues to describe what she’s doing, in particular how her goal is not to hit the “pain fibers,” but to hit the “non-pain” fibers, or the pressure and heat fibers, so that we can “try to remind the nervous system that there are other impulses other than pain.” My reaction, besides WTF?


Dr. Beth further described how she used horse acupuncture points because elephants most resemble horses. Of course, there is no evidence that acupuncture does anything whatsoever other than puncturing the skin; so what Dr. Beth is shown doing in this segment is still utter quackery. She even pulls the “bait and switch” of using electroacupuncture (which is not acupuncture).

The quackery gets even worse, though. Remember thermography? Remember how it’s utter quackery, the sort of thing naturopaths use to “diagnose” everything from breast cancer to “inflammation“? Yes, Dr. Beth brought in Dr. Barbara Durrant, the San Diego Zoo’s Director of Reproductive Physiology, to do thermography on Tembo. (They called it “thermal imaging,” but it was really thermography.) Here’s the thing, though. Even when appropriately used, thermography is very dependent upon a lot of conditions, including the temperature of the room in which it is used, how long the subject of the thermography has been in the room to acclimate and have skin temperature. In any event, Dr. Durrant describes how the red areas (higher temperature/heat) are where Tembo is feeling pain due to inflammation. On what evidence is this based? None. Thermography isn’t even validated for humans, much less for elephants, the thermography camera being used doesn’t even look all that sophisticated, and all we’re treated to is a subjective reading of the “heat signatures.” They didn’t even appear to do any computer image analysis. Or maybe they did and just didn’t show it on the episode, but even in that case it would still have been quackery. The episode ends showing Tembo playing in the mud, her pain supposedly relieved by the acupuncture, with Robbie Clark intoning:

Playing in the mud is actually good personal skin care. It can act as sunscreen and insect repellent for her. It’s great to hear that the heat in Tembo’s right hip has decreased, which lets us know that the acupuncture is working. Diagnosing and treating elephants is tough. We’ve put a lot of time and attention into Tembo’s medical care, and we’ve seen a lot of progress, and that’s something that we’re really excited about. We really look forward to seeing Tembo continue to thrive with us here at the zoo.

Obviously, I don’t expect much better from Animal Planet. It’s a TV network. Its interest is in showing what its audience wants to watch, almost regardless of whether it’s scientifically accurate or supportable or not, and showing an elephant getting acupuncture is, without a doubt interesting. To me it’s interesting for all the wrong reasons, but for an audience that doesn’t realize that acupuncture is quackery, it’s still interesting. The San Diego Zoo, on the other hand, is one of the premier zoos in the country, if not the world. One would expect that it would provide only the best science-based veterinary care for its animal charges. I expect quackery like elephant acupuncture perhaps in Asia, where belief in traditional Chinese medicine is more embedded in the culture than it is here. Indeed, there are stories of elephants that have been “cured” of various ailments in Singapore. In the US, however, one would normally expect evidence- and science-based animal care, not quackery.

Clearly, that is not the case, at least not at the San Diego Zoo. An episode of The Zoo:San Diego just showed one of the zoo’s vets subjecting an elephant to rank quackery and describing how she’s used the same quackery on many other animals at the zoo. Of course, one can look at this another way. Presumably, to be a veterinarian at one of the most prestigious zoos in the country, you have to be the cream of the crop. If what is presumably one of the very best vets in the country has embraced quackery like acupuncture and thermography, what hope does the profession have for being evidence- and science-based?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

29 replies on “Animal Planet: Showcasing acupuncture quackery at the San Diego Zoo”

she used horse acupuncture points because elephants most resemble horses

Compared to a human, definitively. Based on weight, horses are slightly lighter. Based on the position of nerves and blood vessels, not to menton internal organs… is there a veterinarian in the room?
Based on look, or on taxonomy? I’m starting to feel some real doubts.
I guess it could have been worse, the acupuncturist could have picked as reference the acupuncture points of a banana.

Playing in the mud is actually good personal skin care. It can act as sunscreen and insect repellent for her.

Well, maybe Tembo was just being playful, but maybe she was feeling the need to repel insects. Didn’t she just got her skin punctured on many places?
“Say, you got awfully persistent mosquitoes in this place, and big ones, too!”

(trivia – if I remember my Ivory/Mike Resnick correctly, ‘Tembo’ means mountain/elephant in Swahili – ‘Malima Tembo’, the Walking Mountain)

There are charts for horse acupuncture that show the gallbladder meridian. Horses don’t have gallbladders.

Perhaps they have an imaginary gallbladder? Just like the meridians are imaginary and in every country that has it’s own form of acupuncture at different places.
Why not practice ear-acupuncture on elephants?

Clinical trials tomorrow, Bruzinski (sp?) on Wednesday and it will be smooth sailing, baby!

it’s Orac’s blog, he writes whatever he likes whenever he likes.
Right now, vaccines are important because of the recent upticks in VPDs, anti-vax activism and new laws in various locales. He writes about what is timely and to his liking.
Scoffers can get their own platforms..

The elephant’s closest living relative is the hyrax, a small furry creature, and the manatees/dugongs. Horses? Not a lot of science based deduction here.
I have had arguments with relatives about acupuncture and homeopathy ‘working’ in animals as proof there is something more than placebo at work. Given that placebo is largely regression to the mean, it is not surprising that it seems to ‘work’ in animals. But I am just close-minded and think science knows everything…sigh.

From looking online, it seems like the elephant shrew is more closely related to the elephant than horses are?

Tangentially, I highly recommend looking up pictures of elephant shrews. They are an absolute delight.

I would love to have my daughter read this, but since she is bound and determined to continue her studies to become an acupuncturist, I am embargoed by her and by me wife never to bring up the topic. I wish I had a way to expose her to the facts without tearing a huge rift between us.

I face this issue on a regular basis. It’s very difficult to find a response that is polite without compromising my own integrity. So very many people do not have the slightest clue about what science even is.

I agree with Orac that many of the shows cater to entertainment values: perhaps, by focusing less upon science, viewers may be influenced to think that if acupuncture helps an elephant, why not a dog or cat? Thus, they might be encouraging animal woo which is another important topic ( anti-vax, dietary nonsense), hopefully we won’t see THAT ever.

I must say though that one of the most entertaining- and educational- shows I ever saw was from the Alameda animal hospital where cats’ propensity to eat foreign objects was detailed: in particular, the vet named a phenomenon involving *ingested linear objects – ILOs – a/k/a string eating- I was very much acquainted with this potentially dangerous habit- they eat strings, relishing their texture and then -hopefully- poop strings but can damage their intestines in the process because peristalsis creates a sawing effect on the delicate tissues of the intestines*.

Ouch, I didn’t know that last part!

We stopped getting rope toys for our dogs because I was getting tired of gently extricating strings that were hanging out of their rear ends after an unsuccessful attempt to poop the rope remnant. Glad to know my personal convenience and their health lined up…

And yes, the amount of woo in animal care is depressing. Our vet has shown no signs of it, at least.

Years ago I read a memoir by zoo vet (somewhere in Europe/UK?) and one of the stories was about a tiger that had eaten a ball of wire some idiot threw in its cage. When the vet arrived there was a little wire hanging out its mouth and a little wire hanging out its rear.

Thankfully the vet didn’t just yank on the wire, because that would have shredded the poor tiger’s intestines. The zoo ended up having to do massive bowel surgery on the tiger to get all the wire out in safely small pieces.

What is wrong with people?

“What is wrong with people?”

Much easier to list what’s NOT wrong with them.

In addition to real care, a big veterinary/vet oncology practice in my area offers acupuncture, chiropractic and Healing Touch for animals.

According to the website, the latter woo even works on parrots and large green chameleons.

I would like to see them try to use healing touch on my field spaniel’s ears* (he vehemently discourages attempts to use a rinsing solution and ear drops to treat ear infection). A pissed-off elephant might be an even greater risk.

*It reminds me of the James Thurber story about one of their family dogs, Muggs, who was famously bad-tempered and bit people. Thurber’s mother contacted a “mental healer” who had given a lecture about Harmonious Vibrations to see if it was possible for her to get harmonious vibrations into Muggs. The family had to feed Muggs by putting his bowl on a table with a bench for him to climb on, since he’d bite if you tried to put his bowl on the floor. Thurber’s Uncle Horatio (who boasted that he was the third man up Missionary Ridge in the Civil War) was indignant that the family catered to Muggs that way. Thurber’s brother Roy commented that if Uncle Horatio had fed Muggs on the floor before the battle, he would’ve been the first man up Missionary Ridge.

But I digress. 🙂

I have a cavalier king charles spaniel and after her second ear infection got her a special spaniel bowl (sloping sides like a volcano) to keep her ears dry. Nine years without a subsequent ear infection. N=1, YMMV.

The family had to feed Muggs by putting his bowl on a table with a bench for him to climb on, since he’d bite if you tried to put his bowl on the floor.

We had a cavapoo that WOULD NOT eat food from any bowl: it had to be strewn across the floor: if it was too clumped up he’d bark until you fixed it. OTHA, if it was
too spread around he’d do the same.

Of course, he never learned that when i walked him he had to be on the same side of a tree/sign/pole as me — he seemed to think the leash would magically pass through.

Wonderful dog overall, miss him immensely, but my god he was dumb as a rock.

My cairn terrier will eat any vaguely food-like substance that has stopped moving for more than five seconds. Who needs a Roomba?

I have always found 2 things about dogs eating.

Stick with one food as much as possible. Makes life and their digestion much better

If you have to switch, and they don’t want it, they will tomorrow.

Dean: Wonderful dog overall, miss him immensely, but my god he was dumb as a rock.

The really dumb dogs, in my experience, tend to be the most memorable.

I am the owner and ultimate reviewer of all thermography data at major industrial facility. Think billions for value.

So, now I need to go find this show and watch the imaging. Hopefully, he shows us settings or something of his technique.

Who knows, might be worth a laugh, or even be useful if a sick elephant happens by.

Sarcoma … rabies …
Sarcoma … rabies …

Yeah, I know which risk I’ll take with my cat.

You do know what happens if your pet is suspected of rabies, right?

(Also, the way to reduce the sarcoma risk is called “use a different leg each time”, not “skip life-saving vaccines”.)

The rate of injection site sarcoma in cats Is about 1 in 10,000. Am. Assoc.of Feline Practitioners.

Sarcoma … rabies …

The canarypox-vectored feline rabies vaccine is unadjuvanted, which should greatly reduce sarcoma risk.

At least one vet we’ve been to used a “vaccine gun” which was an air-powered gun that shot microscopic gold beads coated in the vaccine to disperse the “injection” site and reduced the risk of sarcoma.

It was also loud as heck and startled everyone (including the cat).

That reminds me, my cat is late for her rabies shot.

You could do some googling:
Philip H. Kass, William L. Spangler, Mattie J. Hendrick, Lawrence D. McGill, DVM, PhD, Glen Esplin, DVM, Sally Lester, Margaret Slater, Kathryn Meyer, Faith Boucher, Erika M. Peters, Glenna G. Gobar, Thurein Htoo, Kendra Decile
Multicenter case-control study of risk factors associated with development of vaccine-associated sarcomas in cats
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
November 1, 2003, Vol. 223, No. 9, Pages 1283-1292
“Conclusions and Clinical Relevance—Findings do not support the hypotheses that specific brands or types of vaccine within antigen class, vaccine practices such as reuse of syringes, concomitant viral infection, history of trauma, or residence either increase or decrease the risk of vaccine associated sarcoma formation in cats. There was evidence to suggest that certain long-acting injectable medications may also be associated with sarcoma formation.”

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