Geriatric animals pose challenges at St. Louis Zoo

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By Diane Toroian Keaggy

They work out every day and never skip a checkup. They eat a balanced diet and enjoy an active social life. And, of course, they don’t smoke.

The healthy lifestyle of today’s zoo animals means they are living longer. That’s a point of pride at the St. Louis Zoo. But it’s also a challenge. Like elderly humans, the old-timers at the Zoo grapple with a variety of age-related ailments ranging from renal failure to hearing loss. Among the Zoo’s senior citizens are a lemur with a bad liver, a Cotswold sheep with cataracts and three arthritic black bears.

“The geriatric problems at zoos are just like the ones we see in our pets and in our families,” said Jack Grisham, the Zoo’s director of animal collections. “As we get older, it’s harder to exercise. Same for them, so we’ll put food higher so they have to climb to get it. We’re giving them softer environments and areas to hide — places where they can get away from each other. Just like you and I have bad days, animals do, too. We have dentists who take care of their teeth and veterinarians who give them health care. And because of all that, animals are living longer than they ever have.”

How long? That’s hard to say. The Zoo has not always kept precise records on animal life spans. But veteran curators know from experience that today’s species are outliving their ancestors. Advertisement

“That curve keeps moving,” said mammal curator Steve Bircher.

Wild animals can be difficult patients. They can’t tell you what hurts and wouldn’t if they could. By nature animals mask their disabilities because, in the wild, the sick often are killed or bullied. And treating geriatric animals is tough. Just ask any keeper who has coaxed a 500-pound black bear into taking a daily dose of joint lubricant.

But the greatest challenge for Zoo staff members is letting go.

“There’s no training for that,” said primate keeper Kelli Niebrugge. “You know it’s the best thing for the animal, but it’s still hard to say goodbye — and we always say goodbye.”

Healthy seniors

Ruffles, the black-and-white lemur, is not saying farewell anytime soon. At 30, Ruffles takes an anti-inflammatory drug for his arthritic legs and SAM-e for his liver. He’s missing some teeth, so Niebrugge feeds him cooked vegetables and small bites of apple. But unlike some elderly lemurs, Ruffles is not losing weight or developing a hunchback. MORE

“It’s not unusual for lemurs in their late teens and 20s to start dying of liver and kidney problems,” said Ingrid Porton, primate curator. “But he’s just hung in there.”

Ruffles is a widower many times over. His last mate, at the Memphis Zoo, died of kidney failure. He was placed with black lemurs, which have little in common with black-and-white lemurs.

“He was not getting any quality companionship because their behaviors are so different,” Porton said. “We had a single female here who had recently lost her mate, so we brought him here so the two can have companionship. As animals age and start losing partners and companions, we try to provide a social environment for them. We don’t need him for breeding, but he’s here to live out his life.”

Ruffles has adjusted well since his arrival here four years ago, said Niebrugge, although he has his moods. No one at the Zoo is ready to say that animals suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, but Niebrugge believes Ruffles may have dementia.

“He will sit there and stare, and you wonder what he sees or what he’s thinking,” Niebrugge said. “You call his name, but it takes him a while to snap out of it.”

Every morning, Niebrugge notes the lemur’s disposition as well as his stool, hair, appetite and mobility. Every observation is logged, every change discussed during the morning staff meeting. Keepers do not have extensive medical training, but like moms, they just know when their wards are off. That’s when the vets are called in.

And, says Porton, “usually they’re right. They just bloody see everything.”

Saying goodbye

Though animals are living longer, they can’t live forever. Last month, Betsy the rhinoceros died of old age. At 31, she was the third-oldest female eastern black rhino in North America. Her mate, Toto, is 32 and is the oldest living male. He enjoys relatively good health. Gemma, an Amur leopard, also died in January of cancer. She was 19, elderly for a cat.

And recently, all four of the Zoo’s lions have died. Oni, the Zoo’s final lion, died last summer at 19. She outlived Oba, 19; Omar, 18 and Asha, 16.

“We knew for the last two, three years of their lives that they were in renal failure, and we knew it was something that would not reverse itself,” Bircher said. “When I would make rounds, I would ask the keeper how (is) the animal doing, is the animal comfortable, and the keeper would say, “Yeah, doing OK today.’ Other days, not so good. There were times we thought those animals would not make it as long as they did.”

When Oni stopped eating, keepers injected her with appetite stimulants and tried to tempt her with bones and her favorite cuts of meat.

“We did that for two or three months before she died because she would have a good day and a not-so-good day, but the good days would keep us going,” Bircher said.

Oni received IV fluids when she became dehydrated, but dialysis was out of the question. Oni, after all, was a wild animal, and veterinarians would have to anesthetize her every time she needed a treatment. Some hand-raised cheetahs at the Zoo have been trained to take a needle, but they are the exception.

“We have limited access to these animals,” said animal health chief Randy Junge. “It’s not like I can go into a bear den and take the bear’s leg and manipulate it and give him an injection. If we have an animal near the end of its normal life span, we are not going to opt for an intensive treatment that requires a lot of management.”

So while organ transplants, hip replacements and chemotherapy are not unheard of for our pets, Junge says zoos won’t pursue such aggressive treatment.

For Oni, the ultimate answer was euthanasia. First Junge injected her with anesthesia. Then he delivered an IV overdose of more anesthesia.

Bircher said, “We had several meetings. There were a lot of tears, there always are. But we never keep an animal going if we think it is suffering.”

Junge has attended countless such meetings during his career. He said keepers usually initiate these talks, although they are the ones most affected by the outcome.

“They become very attached to the animals, and that’s appropriate,” Junge said. “But they also are able to analyze the condition objectively. There’s never been a time in 20 years where I’ve said, ‘This animal’s life is bad,’ and the keeper has said, ‘No, I can’t let go.’ I can’t imagine that happening.”

After Oni died, she was taken to the Zoo’s hospital, where an all-day autopsy was performed. The Zoo’s full-time pathologist weighed her organs, collected tissue samples and took photographs. An animal waste-disposal company picked up the remains and incinerated them. The Zoo does not collect the ashes. story/4621B29ECC04B01B862572770022A0B8?OpenDocument

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