No pattern in deaths at zoo
9 prominent animals have died in the past year, 2 this month
By KATHY MULADY AND JOHN IWASAKI
Nine high-profile animals have died at Woodland Park Zoo in the past year, including an ocelot and a tree kangaroo in the past two weeks.
Some of the animals were longtime zoo residents, including a 32- year-old zebra named Rosie and a 16- year-old cougar.
Other animals that died this year were an 11-year-old pony named Bonnie, a snow leopard, a Rocky Mountain goat, a Pallas’ cat and a DeBrazza’s guenon, a type of monkey.
The list comprises only mammals, not the reptiles, birds, smaller animals or insects that are in the zoo’s collection.
The ocelot that died last week was the second the zoo lost in 14 months.
It has been the zoo’s policy for many years to announce the deaths of large or otherwise notable animals that are especially familiar to zoo visitors.
Zoo officials in Seattle and nationally say it is impossible to draw any conclusions from the deaths, which represent about 4 percent of the 250 mammals at the zoo.
"In my seven years here, our animal mortality has been pretty good, pretty low," said Zoo Deputy Director Bruce Bohmke. "Many of our animals live way beyond what their life span would be in the wild. You expect to see a certain percent die over the year."
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits zoos, doesn’t have specific policies or keep statistics on mortality rates at its member zoos.
"There are no easy comparisons on deaths at zoos," said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the association. "Each zoo has a unique collection of species that have different life spans.
"Comparing a zoo with a bigger bird collection to one with more mammals would be comparing oranges to apples. Also, some of our members are small, compared to others that are quite large with a zoo population to go with it."
Ballentine said the association, based in Maryland, likely would be concerned if a zoo lost a large number of animals from a single species.
And zoos sometimes call on the association to request an independent investigation if they lose a large number of high-profile animals, mainly to reassure the public about the quality of their animal care, Ballentine said.
Some of the animals at Woodland Park Zoo died earlier than generally expected for zoo animals.
In zoos, zebras can live to be 40 years old. Rosie, the 32-year- old zebra, was euthanized because of discomfort from arthritis in her legs.
The tree kangaroo that died last week was 14 years old. In captivity, the kangaroos may live up to 20 years old.
"Be very careful about talking about averages," Bohmke advised. "I know people who lived to be 95 and others who have died at 60 or 65.
"When you look at what the number of deaths means, or what the number of births means, you have to know a lot more about it. There is a lot more to it than that."
Dr. Charles Leathers, a professor of pathology at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Washington State University, agreed.
Whether a string of animal deaths means anything has much to do "with historical information — the number of animals in the collection, the mortality in the last year and last decade," Leathers said.
A spike in mortality or some other unusual pattern would have to be compared with the historical average, he said.
Animals generally live longer in zoos than in the wild because of good nutrition, health and medical care and a lack of predators.
But detecting illness, injury or disease isn’t always easy, even under close watch in a zoo. Even in captivity, animals follow their natural instinct to hide signs of injury or weakness that might single them out from the crowd in the wild and make them easy prey.
Nancy Hawkes, Woodland Park Zoo’s general curator, emphasized that the zoo has a more experienced staff than other zoos and has two full-time veterinarians.
Woodland Park also takes advantage of community expertise and medical equipment to provide top care for its animals.
Disease or old age were the primary reasons for the most recent deaths, Bohmke said. The zoo always performs a complete necropsy for each animal that dies. Tissue samples from animals are sent to labs for testing.
A growing database of information is helping zookeepers and veterinarians understand their animals, diseases and causes of death.
By coincidence, nine mammals were born at the zoo this year, Bohmke noted.
Accredited zoos nationwide work together on breeding programs and sometimes share or exchange animals under careful watch of the zoo and aquarium association.
Thorough records are kept on each animal.
Very few zoo animals are imported from the wild anymore; most are born in captivity.
The ocelot that died last week came from the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City.
Ocelots are spotted cats that can live to be 20 in zoos and usually 10 to 13 in the wild, according to zoo statements. The 12- year-old ocelot, a male, had been at Woodland Park Zoo for less than a year.
The animal recently had surgery after it began losing weight and accumulating fluid in its abdomen.
Animal deaths, like births, are part of life at zoos.
The San Francisco Zoo experienced two significant deaths last week. An Australian black swan unexpectedly died May 21, less than three weeks after it went on exhibit.
On May 24, Pogo, a Western lowland gorilla — and one of the oldest apes in the nation — died at age 48.
Zoo officials still don’t know the cause of the swan’s death. They said Pogo’s demise was not surprising, given her heart problems and other ailments.
"A zoo is no different than any other segment of life," said Lora LaMarca, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area zoo.
"Animals are born, and animals die."
Drawing general conclusions about animal deaths is difficult because so many factors are involved, said Chris Pfefferkorn, general curator of the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
"You have to look at the circumstances, the natural history (of an individual animal), the genetics," he said.
Like Bohmke, Pfefferkorn compares the average life span of animals in zoos to trying to predict the average life span for a person.
The average life span for a man in the United States might be 82, Pfefferkorn said, but "men live past 82 and die before 82."
At Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, 10 mammals died between June 2005 and last week, including a llama that was almost 24 and an opossum that was nearly 3, elderly by that marsupial’s standards.
Some animals are euthanized when their quality of life diminishes, "like you’d do for a pet," Point Defiance Zoo spokeswoman Carolyn Cox said.
A spike in mortality or some other unusual pattern would be compared with the historical average, Bohmke said.
"No one likes to focus on death, even though it is part of life."
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