Aging animal present a challenge for staff of Okla. zoo

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Long in the tooth
Tulsa’s aging animals present a challenge for zoo staff.

By SARA PLUMMER World Staff Writer

Published: 2/7/2010 2:27 AM
Last Modified: 2/7/2010 3:58 AM

Caring for a zoo full of aging animals is a growing responsibility for veterinarian Kay Backues and her staff.

And with a declining city budget, that may not change any time soon.

Several of the zoo’s most popular animals died of old age in the last 10 years — including a 15-year-old male lion in 2003, a 21-year-old female lion in 2006, a 24-year-old female polar bear in 2006 and a 28-year-old brown bear last year.

Two more animals — a cheetah and a zebra — were euthanized because of declining health in the last few months.

The zoo now has several geriatric animals that are in the last one-third or quarter of their lives, said Backues, the Tulsa Zoo veterinarian. And the health issues these animals face are the same that humans encounter as they age: osteoarthritis, organ failure, cancer, even heart disease and diabetes.

The aging population can be attributed to several things, including the fact that zoo animals often live beyond what their life expectancies would be in the wild because of the care they receive in captivity.

“They don’t have to worry about food, don’t have to worry about being eaten by other animals,” Backues said. The animals also are given regular health exams, vaccinations and dental care. Their weight is monitored, and exercise is encouraged.

“If they weren’t well taken care of, they wouldn’t live to their ages,” she said.

Luther, a 14-year-old cheetah, died in December. The cheetah was being treated for declining kidney function and osteoarthritis, Backues said. When he could no longer get up, veterinary staff decided to euthanize Luther.

“It was a quality-of-life issue,” she said.

The same decision was made in January with a 30-year-old zebra with kidney failure.

“Zebras wouldn’t live to be 30 in the wild,” Backues said. “A zebra is lucky to live to be 10.”

Three zebras remain in the African hoof stock collection and one cheetah — Luther’s brother Kuma, who is also 14 years old.

“He’s slowed down a bit, but he’s still getting around,” she said.

Other senior animals on display include one of the oldest Asian elephants in North America. Gunda will celebrate her 60th birthday this November.

“She’s been at the Tulsa Zoo longer than any other animal or person,” said zookeeper Andrew Kluesner. “She was our first elephant at the zoo.”

Gunda is still active and participates in elephant demonstrations for the public, but she is given vitamin supplements for her diet and joint protection.

“When the weather gets cooler, we watch out for her a little more than the others,” Kluesner said. “She’s very mellow, very easy-going. She likes to interact a bit. All indications are she’s not slowing down. She hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years.”

Almost as old as Gunda are some of the flamingos. Six fully grown flamingos arrived at the zoo in 1961, and of that original flock, four remain in the yard, said bird keeper Karen Higgins.

“They’re still going strong,” Higgins said. Keepers monitor the birds’ eyesight, diet, social interaction and leg health, which is the primary health concern for flamingos. “They’re all legs.”

One of the three snow leopards at the zoo, Tsar, also has lived beyond his life expectancy and is now being treated for kidney disease.

Care of aging animals is an issue zoos across the United States are dealing with, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the accrediting body for zoos and aquariums.

“Advances in veterinary medicine mirror advances in human medicine,” Feldman said. “That leads to longer, more comfortable lives in zoos. You won’t see a cheetah with arthritis in the wild.”

The AZA’s Species Survival Plan regulates breeding at its member zoos, including Tulsa’s. Some species breed better in captivity than others, so when a zoo loses an animal, it could take a while to get a replacement based on demand and the condition of the existing exhibit, Feldman said.

Right now, there are no brown bears or polar bears on exhibit at the Tulsa Zoo. The male polar bear is on loan to another zoo for breeding purposes, said Zoo Director Terrie Correll.

Because of the small breeding group of polar bears in North American zoos and the difficulty in breeding the species, there are not enough cubs being born to replenish zoos that lose polar bears, Correll said.

“Polar bears may not be in our future because the exhibit would have to be renovated,” she said.

Zoo staff members are looking at housing grizzly bears in the now-empty polar bear exhibit. They would also like to get another cheetah.

“Sometimes a zoo will want a breeding group, some will want a same-sex group for display only,” Correll said. “It depends on the availability of the population.”

The zoo also is still looking for a female giraffe to breed with Samburu, the zoo’s 17-year-old male giraffe. Two female giraffes were brought to the zoo in October for breeding, but both died within four months of arriving in Tulsa.

Funding is a barrier to replacing animals. In some cases, exhibits and habitats must be renovated or updated to current industry standards to get new animals, which takes money, Correll said. That’s something the city of Tulsa doesn’t have a lot of right now.

Tulsa Zoo Friends, a nonprofit fundraising agency for the zoo, funded the penguin exhibit, the Elephant Encounter museum and expansion of the elephant exhibit and the expansion of the Chimpanzee Connection exhibit. The latest renovation, the sea lion exhibit, is being funded by Tulsa Zoo Friends and the city of Tulsa and is under way.

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