December 25, 2009
Zoo staff defended in death of jaguar
BY CHRIS KRIDLER
The Brevard Zoo won’t know more for weeks about why its 7-year-old male jaguar stopped breathing during a routine physical and eventually died, but its director of animal programs says the staff response to the crisis was “textbook.”
Xinca was chemically immobilized Nov. 17 for a complete physical that included cleaning his teeth and taking a semen sample. He stopped breathing about 80 minutes into the procedure and was resuscitated by the staff, but he never regained full consciousness and died Nov. 21.
“We have a team of people that’s been through jaguar immobilizations,” said Michelle Smurl, animal-programs director. “Masaya (Xinca’s mate) had been done about a year and a half, two years ago because she needed a root canal. So we’re skilled here
on jaguar immobilizations.”
While anesthesia can always lead to complications, none were expected because Xinca seemed to be a healthy cat and had been chemically immobilized for previous exams. Still, the zoo’s veterinarian, vet technicians and a visiting veterinarian who wanted the semen for research were prepared, Smurl said.
The team also received assistance from the Animal Emergency and Critical Care Center of Brevard and consulted with a neurologist.
Necropsy results that could shed more light on why Xinca died may take weeks. A necropsy is the animal equivalent of an autopsy.
Smurl said standard procedures were followed and nothing stands out as a cause of Xinca’s death.
“It’s really hard sometimes to determine cause of death on exotic animals,” Smurl said. “They’re not as studied as human beings are, or even cats and dogs.”
The zoo conducts physicals on its jaguars every two or three years, Smurl said. Xinca’s teeth needed attention, and routine physicals are necessary for the animals’ health.
Complications from anesthesia are one of the least common causes of death in jaguars, according to a study published in 2006 by Sharon Deem, who was then at the National Zoo in Washington, and Katharine Hope, who now works at the National Zoo.
Thirty of the 39 Association of Zoos and Aquariums institutions they surveyed about jaguar diseases and deaths responded.
Of the 87 deaths the study examined, about 3 percent were attributed to anesthesia-related causes; 2 percent were blamed on “immobilization/transport.”
Most were attributed to stillborn or neonatal causes (20 percent), reproductive issues (17 percent) and musculoskeletal/neuromuscular causes (13 percent).
Brevard Zoo, which is accredited by the AZA, lost a black jaguar named Onyx in in 2000. She appeared fine after an immobilization, but died hours later.
The death, attributed to capture myopathy, was different, Smurl said. “Basically, she was at a level of stress where her muscles were starting to break down.”
There are no automatic reviews of animal deaths, though the zoo does an internal review, she said.
“Animals die, and we were not neglectful,” Smurl said. ” . . . We have a great track record with all the agencies that work with us.”
University of Florida associate professor Darryl Heard, an expert on animal immobilizations, said anesthesia always carries risks.
“Even the most routine procedure can result in unpredictable, life-threatening problems,” he said in an e-mail response to questions.
Heard said he believed in annual anesthetizing of animals for examinations, dental care and other procedures. Animals aren’t immobilized too frequently, he said.
“I often have found the opposite to be true in zoos — the animal is not anesthetized until it is very ill, and any medical problem is not able to be corrected,” he said. “Although there is risk, the benefits of routine health care far outweigh this issue.”
In Arizona, controversy surrounds the death of a wild jaguar last March. He was accidentally caught in a trap, anesthetized, fitted with a radio collar and released, but indications of deteriorating health led to his euthanization.
There are many questions surrounding his death; one is whether the controversial drug used to anesthetize him, Telazol, contributed to his fast decline.
That drug was not used in the immobilization of Xinca, Smurl said.
Immobilizations are not taken lightly, she said; Xinca’s physical was “multi-purpose” and necessary.
“How else are you going to gather information on an exotic animal . . . whose personality typically wants to kill you?” she said. “You can’t.”
The semen sample was incidental to the physical and was important to research on preserving rare animals’ semen for future species survival, Smurl said.
Zoo staff members are still mourning the loss of the animal, but Masaya, the female jaguar, is “probably doing better than we are,” Smurl said. “She’s a strong cat. They’re solitary, remember.”
Brevard Zoo is continuing with plans to open a cheetah exhibit in February. Smurl expects it will be at least a year before Masaya is paired with another jaguar. The female had three cubs with Xinca that are all now at other zoos.
Meanwhile, the zoo continues with routine physicals of its animals.
“No one knows about all the successful immobilizations we have on a weekly basis,” Smurl said.
As for Xinca, “we’ll wait until we get results, and then we’ll determine if we need to change anything.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org
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