Southern California zoo euthanizes cheetah

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Mariecar Mendoza
The Desert Sun
December 28, 2006

The Living Desert zoo in Palm Desert celebrated the holidays two members short this year.

A 12-year-old cheetah and an 8-year-old ankole cow died last week of health complications that led the zoo’s medical staff to euthanize the animals, Dr. Kevin Leiske of The Living Desert said.

Elwood the cheetah was put down Dec. 17 after suffering from renal failure, Leiske said. Four days later, the ankole, named Aretha, was euthanized due to complications with her hind legs that kept her immobile for several days.

The Living Desert now has three cheetahs, two of which are Elwood’s siblings, and three bulls, Aretha’s mate and two sons, Marcia Fisher, director of marketing and public relations said.

“They’ve been sick for a while,” Fisher said. “We knew something was going to happen, so they were taken off exhibit and kept comfortable.”

Fisher said the animals at The Living Desert are checked and monitored daily by zoo keepers as well as given an annual physical exam.

On Nov. 2, the zoo’s medical staff discovered Elwood was suffering from kidney failure.

“We began treatment, but when his quality of life was deteriorating, we decided to euthanize him,” Leiske said.

Leiske added that at Elwood’s age, his illness didn’t come as much of a surprise.

Aretha’s condition, however, was a little more alarming.

Leiske said she started showing signs of weakness in her hind limbs in early December. Though she had a stint of improvement, by mid-December her condition had waned.

“She couldn’t get on her hind legs, and when you’re a large animal, you can’t be sitting for a long period of time because it’ll cause other complications,” Leiske said.

Zoo officials are investigating the cause of Aretha’s death because initially they could not pinpoint any cause or trauma to indicate why she had the weakness, Leiske said.

An exam of the body is being conducted at the state Veterinary Diagnostics Lab in San Bernardino to determine the cause of death.

“We’re looking for a specific cause because she wasn’t that old,” he said.

He added that the other ankoles have not shown any signs of illness, so the zoo does not suspect anything infectious.

Leiske said there have been about 20 to 30 animal deaths at the zoo this year but emphasized the numbers are skewed because of several factors such as still-births.

Fisher added that the zoo has animals that have lived there for more than 20 years.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park Web site, cheetahs in zoos can live to be 17 years old but may live only eight to 10 years in the wild. Ankole cattle, on the other hand, can live to be more than 20 years old, according to the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens ANIMAL Web site.

Fisher said visitors have not noticed the change and there have not been any reports of the other animals reacting to the deaths.

Fisher said the cheetah had lived at the zoo since 1996 and the ankole cow since 1999. Before moving to the desert, Elwood lived at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, and Aretha lived at San Diego Wild Animal Park.


“The Living Desert has one of the most state-of-the-art veterinary hospitals in the zoo community. Visitors can observe animals being examined and watch procedures such as dental cleaning, surgery and annual exams.

“As in most zoos that have been in existence for many years like The Living Desert, many of the animals in the collection become geriatric and require special medical attention. The Living Desert’s collection includes many animals that are setting longevity records for their species, e.g. the Mountain Lion Reno and the Bighorn Sheep Inca.

“The Living Desert offers expert care of its animals with a full-time staff veterinarian and veterinary technicians. Staff of The Living Desert is writing the national professional standards for animal care and wellbeing for some species of animals to be used in zoos across the country, e.g. canid and antelope standards.

“It is the belief of The Living Desert that all animals should be treated with respect and each animal should have a life of good wellbeing. Everything that the Living Desert does, we do in the best interest of the animals, both in our care and in the wild.

“The Living Desert keeps its family informed of life changing events with the animals under our care. All staff and volunteers are notified immediately when an animal death occurs. When a Living Desert ‘celebrity’ passes on, a press release is issued to our wider family in the Coachella Valley community. In the event that an animal is euthanized, animal keepers are allowed to attend. The animal keepers are very close to their charges and may be deeply affected by these natural life and death events.

“In the case of Elwood. the cheetah, his medical condition had been monitored for several weeks. As happens to many old cats, kidney failure is quite common, including domesticated cats. Eventually old animals die of some cause. When it was determined that Elwood’s kidney condition had deteriorated to a point that quality of life could not be assured, the decision was made to let him go with dignity. He was euthanized.

“Aretha, the Ankole cow, had been experiencing some health problems of an undetermined cause for a few weeks and was being closely monitored by staff. The Living Desert contacted outside veterinary experts from the San Diego Wild Animal Park to assist us in diagnosing the cause and determine the best line of treatment. After standard medical procedures such as fluid therapy and medication, and even alternative therapies such as acupuncture had failed to produce a positive change in her condition and she was no longer able to stand on her own, we could no longer assure her any quality of life. Animals of her size, over 600 pounds, cannot tolerate lying down for long periods of time and their condition will worsen under these circumstances. Therefore, the decision was made to euthanize her. After she was euthanized, she was sent to the State of California Veterinary Diagnostics Lab in San Bernardino for a necropsy to hopefully find answers as to the cause of her decline. We are involved in continuous learning to continually improve our ability to care for the animals.

“Although these two deaths happened close to one another in time, there is no possible link between them. All animals die, but no one expects it.

“The Living Desert performs all euthanasia in a humane and compassionate manner. Euthanasia is always performed by The Living Desert veterinarian or the licensed back-up veterinarian. Euthanasia is only performed using the humane techniques and procedures as outlined in 2002 Report of the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia.” 20061228/NEWS01/612280360/1006

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