As residents age, geriatric medicine comes to zoo

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As residents age, geriatric medicine comes to zoo

Captive animals here follow zoo trend for longevity

Sunday, August 23, 2009
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Globus, the rare, gentle Amur tiger who appeared on the cover of National Geographic and fathered the popular cub, Billy Ray, born last year, is dead.

The 14-year-old, wild-born Russian cat was euthanized Aug. 13 by the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium veterinary staff after tests determined his long-term kidney problems had worsened and he was in renal failure. He didn’t respond to a variety of medications and, at the end, had lost interest in eating even the fresh salmon that keepers and veterinarians bought special for him and that he had loved.

Globus was old but not as aged as some of the other animals at the zoo in Highland Park. But together they are part of a national trend that has seen zoo animals live longer, and, just like humans, need more medical treatment, medications and therapy as they near the end of their lives.

The lengthened lives of animals in captivity has been abetted by the increased attention zoos now pay to healthier food, modern medicine, more natural habitats and social environments that reduce stress and result in more robust animals.

“Yes we are seeing our animals live longer,” said Dr. Barbara Baker, the Pittsburgh zoo’s president and chief executive officer. “In 1982 when I started here, a lot of zoos didn’t even have full-time veterinary care.

“Now we’re seeing situations where the level of care has increased, the animals are living much longer and we’re having to deal with animals that have more geriatric problems.”

Globus was a personable tiger with a lot of fans at the zoo. He’d been coughing and lethargic. He was sedated and X-rayed to allow Dr. Stephanie James, the Pittsburgh zoo’s new director of veterinary service, to look at his lungs, kidney function and joints.

“He didn’t have pneumonia but he was in end stage renal failure — his kidney function was shutting down,” said Dr. James, who came to Pittsburgh from the Bronx Zoo in New York and knew Globus when he was in the tiger exhibit there. “We played with his medications for a month, trying antibiotics and steroids and attempting to increase his appetite.”

Nothing worked for long. At the end, he wouldn’t get up, wasn’t interested in eating. Dialysis wasn’t an option.

“He got scruffy and skinny,” Dr. James said. “We were at the end of our rope for what we could do medically.”

The zoo’s Animal Management Committee, including Dr. James, Dr. Baker and the keepers and staff who knew Globus best, convened to make the very hard decision.

“It was a huge effort. Everyone was involved from the keepers to the director, and it was the group’s decision that it was time for Globus,” Dr. James said. “Every time I have to make that decision it’s the biggest responsibility I have to face as a professional, and it’s done with great care and compassion.”

All end-of-life decisions are hard and that was especially true for Globus, whose following was long and stretched to the zoo president’s office.

“It wasn’t just that Globus was a beautiful tiger. He also had a great personality, very laid-back and easygoing,” said Dr. Baker, who recounted how, after a mourning dove flew into a window in the tiger exhibit and was stunned, Globus padded over, picked it up in his mouth and gently laid it on a rock in the sun.

“He was so gentle and unique but at the end there wasn’t a darned thing we could do for the fella.”

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