Growing Old Gracefully - A Look Into The Zoo’s Geriatric Animal Friends
December 02 2021
Aging – perhaps something we think of only in terms of humans, but it’s actually a topic worth exploring as it relates to our animal collection. As they say, some things only get better with age – from wisdom & self-confidence to cast iron skillets and a good red wine! But, when it comes to wild animals, there’s more to the story that meets the eye to the average zoo guest.
If you stop and think about the typical life of an animal in the wild, in many instances, they wouldn’t live to a full life expectancy due to a variety of factors including: predation, environmental encroachment, disease -- among others. But, as those same species are taken care of by humans inside of zoos, they enjoy a perfectly prepared habitat to meet their needs, an individually tailored and prepared diet, access to key medications and round the clock medical attention.
This ability to live in a well-appointed environment and be monitored on a daily basis, allows many wild animals in human care to live well beyond their normal life expectancies. When this happens, aging begins to take place – and with that, comes unique and special protocols and procedures to ensure all of our animals live happy and comfortable lives, even if well into their “elderly” years.
In fact, caretaking for our geriatric animal population actually requires more specialized training and is much more intricate than the care of the young and spry. It requires the staff who work with these animals on a daily basis to pay extra special attention to what their “new normal” is as an aging animal. This can be the difference between spotting an illness or a sign of advanced maturity. As well, with age, the team wants to ensure an animal remains lean and is active, by providing enrichments that encourage he or she to get up and get moving. All of these factors help the animal remain adaptable and strong.
Let’s take a deeper dive into a few of our geriatric animals and learn how the team is taking amazing care of them as they age.
Intan: Our Male Malayan Tiger. He is 18-years-old with a typical life expectancy of 15-20 years. Our animal care staff has started to see early-stage renal disease, which is very common in this species as they age. The great news is he can live a happy healthy life with this diagnosis for quite some time. Some modifications we make for this diagnosis include: closely monitoring his water intake, his appetite, his energy level, and his weight. Fortunately, we have not seen many early signs of arthritis - which is also very common as animals age. But when that time comes, we will be prepared to adjust his night house with appropriate bedding or supplemental medications to ensure his comfort.
Oso: Our Male Spectacled Bear. He is 28-years-old with a typical life expectancy of 20-30 years. Oso is lovingly referred to as our “sweet old man” and we take good care of him during his twilight years. This includes joint medication for his arthritis and the softening of his food for dental issues. In fact, the staff typically soaks his omnivore diet in apple juice or boils his vegetables and fruits, such as sweet potatoes and apples, to ensure he can chew and enjoy without pain. As well, Oso enjoys extra shavings for his bedding and is given lots of time and treats (in the form of fish) when it’s time for him to shift or complete a necessary task. Most of all, our team provides patience and that’s making all the difference his Oso’s considerable quality of life.
George: Our Male Bobcat. He is 23-years-old with a typical life expectancy of 15-20 years. The team began seeing advanced signs of arthritis in George recently and therefore he began daily medication, adjusting those medications as necessary. They also provide him with a multitude of low level, soft, shaving lined beds for him to sleep on so there is less pressure on his joints. Because of his lower level of activity, we monitor his nails to make sure they are not overgrown. When we trim his nails, we take the opportunity to brush some minor matting since he does not groom as often anymore.
As you may now appreciate, there are many layers to caring for our special aging animal collection that the public never sees or even realizes takes place. Our Zoo is designed to take care of our animals holistically to best accommodate their needs from life to death. We are honored to carry out that service every single day.
There is an old adage, “Do not regret growing older, it is a privilege denied to many.” We are exponentially grateful for the animals in our care. It is our duty to ensure they have the maximum quality of life while under our team’s care. The older they get; the better job we are doing. Cheers to aging happily!
A few words from our zookeepers:
“Working with geriatrics has taught me a lot of patience. It really makes you slow down and appreciate every moment with your animals because you know it could be the last. So, if they are having a rough day and want to take an 5 extra minutes to lay in bed before going out, they absolutely may do that. I am happy to cater to their needs because I am their voice and they trust me to listen.” – Julianna
“Caring for an animal is such a selfless act. Neither of you speak the same language and it’s a bond built on trust. Whether it’s an animal in human care or a family pet. You may get the chance to watch an animal live from birth until their dying day. Being a keeper, we’re fortunate enough to be a part of this life cycle. As an animal gets older the care that we give them becomes that much more important. I’ve been a keeper over 6 years now and have helped play a part in many different animal’s lives.” -- Jill
“At times guests may not understand why a zoo may have so many geriatric animals. They want to see babies running around and playing. To a zookeeper, it’s a matter of pride that we are able to care for an animal well beyond their life expectancy and we play a huge role in that aspect. Without proper care, helping an animal have a rich, fulfilling life just isn’t possible. An animal is a blessing no matter what kind it is, they teach us many things: selflessness, compassion, patience, how to deal with grief, letting go, and also about picking ourselves back up and carrying on. The list can go on and on and if you’re lucky, you get to be a part of that beautiful life.” -- Jill