Using animals to assist with human medical procedures is nothing new. Leeches can help heal skin grafts by restoring circulation in blocked veins and removing pooled blood under new grafts. Maggots will clean a wound by eating only the dead tissue, thereby aiding in preventing infection. Now, an insect commonly known as the kissing bug is being put to work in zoos in Germany and England as a living syringe.
Collecting blood samples from zoo animals can prove to be a difficult task, often requiring sedation. Small animals are especially tricky because finding a vein from which to draw blood can be nearly impossible. The kissing bug solves those problems—it’s any one of 130 species of small, blood-sucking insects belonging to the sub-family Triatominae. Like most blood-suckers, the kissing bug releases a pain-reducing enzyme when it bites, effectively anesthetizing the area at the same time as the bite. The bug is at the center of a pilot project in two zoos in the UK under the umbrella of a study which originated in Germany. The insects are bred in a sterile lab, then put against an animal’s hide under a container in which they are caught when they have finished feeding. They are ultimately killed to collect the blood samples. The technique is so far proving to be a welcome non-invasive alternative.