Canadian Press: CHRIS MORRIS
Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2007 | 1:30 PM ET
FREDERICTON (CP) - The health issues facing an old, dying tiger in a New Brunswick zoo are symptomatic of problems confronting zookeepers across North America as they cope with a growing population of geriatric animals.
Officials at the small Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton, N.B., have attracted worldwide attention in their search for ways to keep the zoo's star attraction, Tomar the Siberian tiger, alive and comfortable despite kidney failure.
Bruce Dougan, general manager of the Magnetic Hill Zoo, said Tomar is responding well to a new diet and medications - including blood-pressure and antacid pills - designed to reduce pressure on the 19-year-old cat's failing kidneys.
"We're feeding him egg yolks, ducks and fatty cuts of meat because the fat will give him the nutrition he needs, the energy he needs for his day-to-day activities and it won't give him as much urea to process," Dougan said in an interview Wednesday.
"With the fattier diet, his kidneys don't have to work quite so hard."
Although there is no chance of reversing the terminal illness, Dougan said zoo officials now are hoping Tomar "His spirits are really good," he said of the old tiger, who loves the cold weather.
"As well, we think all this positive energy from all the people who are praying for Tomar and thinking good thoughts about him is helping as well."
More and more zoo animals like Tomar are living to ripe old ages thanks to the improved care zoos give to their wild, often endangered captives.
Just down the walk from Tomar's spacious pen is a 21-year-old male lion named Marshall.
In the wild, tigers and lions rarely live to such advanced ages.
"As soon as something slows them down, they often become prey," said Dr. Sandie Black, head of veterinary services at the Calgary Zoo Animal Health Centre.
Black and her team of veterinarians and keepers have their hands full with a variety of elderly inhabitants at the Calgary Zoo, including Foggy, a 41-year-old male hippo.
Foggy is suffering from one of the most common complaints afflicting mammals as they reach their golden years - the curse of gum disease.
Black said Foggy's keepers have devised an ingenious water pick for the old hippo - a high-pressure fire hose that washes away bits of hay and other detritus stuck between his teeth after meals.
His keepers just have to get him to smile for the treatment.
"In fact, he really enjoys it," Black said.
At the St. Louis Zoo in the United States, where officials are mourning the recent death of Betsy, a 31-year-old rhinoceros, keepers are coping with the demands of numerous senior animals, including a 30-year-old lemur with a bad liver, a Cotswold sheep with cataracts and three arthritic black bears.
In addition, Betsy's mate, Toto, now is 32 - the oldest living male on record.
Black said the big problem facing zoo vets and keepers is figuring out when their elderly charges are unwell.
She said the animals instinctively hide disabilities.
"In the wild, it's really important to look like you're doing well so other animals don't take advantage of you," Black said.
"The signs of pain are often subtle. In gorillas, for instance, it may be nothing more than a bead of sweat across the brow or the clenching of their hands."
She said veterinarians also have to balance the risks and benefits of beginning medical treatment on wild animals. She said the stress of being handled and medicated may be too much for some animals.
However, both Dougan and Black say that the longer an animal lives, the more it becomes an icon for the zoo and an ambassador for its species.
Hundreds of people recently turned up at the Magnetic Hill Zoo for a rare open house to see Tomar - the symbol of the zoo.
"We're getting offers of books to be written about Tomar, of pictures to be painted, of quilts to be sewn," Dougan said, referring to the worldwide response to Tomar's plight.
"It's amazing how many people are interested in what happens to this one old tiger."