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Zoo Animals in Golden Years

July 1, 2008

Aging animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium are giving Allegheny County’s senior citizens a run for their money.

The zoo has about a dozen geriatric animals who have lived years beyond their typical lifespans in the wild. Caring for them requires special attention, extra veterinary care and, occasionally, some coddling.

“I think with geriatric animals, it’s amazing the way they continue to compensate and thrive even as they age,” said Michelle Farmerie, one of the zoo’s primate keepers. “Their strength and desire to go out on exhibit and interact with the other animals — they’re really tough.”

Advances in veterinary medicine and improved zoo conditions allow animals to live about twice as long as they did 30 to 40 years ago, said Robert Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, an organization dedicated to improving the care of captive animals. Zoos nationwide are spending more time and money on ways to treat and accommodate their geriatric animals, he said.

Seniority has its advantages.

The zoo’s 26-year-old Kodiak bear, Rocky, has a straw bed in the exhibit area and plenty of peanut and candy treats. Juma, an 18-year-old lion, gets store-bought poultry for dinner. Zakula, a gorilla in her 40s, can use a ladder to get to the exhibit area. And Mae’s keepers are ready to spot even the smallest sign that the 35-year-old Gibbon is even “a little off.”

“There was a time 20 to 30 years ago where you didn’t do much with each animal,” said Cindy Stadler, the zoo’s head veterinarian. “Now there’s a program of preventative medicine, and you’re able to keep track of their health status a lot better, and things don’t creep up on you.”

Veterinary costs have increased in proportion to zoo operating costs, Hilsenroth said. However, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires member zoos to maintain strong financial reserves so that they continue to meet standards for a long time, said Steve Feldman, spokesperson for the AZA, a nonprofit organization through which the Pittsburgh zoo is certified.

Most of the zoo’s geriatric animals suffer from stiffness and arthritis that occur with old age, Stadler said. They’re given glucosamine, and sometimes pain medication, to help alleviate the soreness, she said.

Farmerie said caring for older animals often means simply knowing their habits.

“You know their personality, so if they’re a little less enthusiastic or a little more withdrawn, then you know something is wrong,” she said.

Bear keeper Mo Brown said when he sees a bear is having an “off day,” he allows it to stay inside or gives it one of its favorite foods.

“I do things for them that I would want to be done for me if I was one of them,” he said.

Although some senior animals — such as Rocky, the Kodiak — are on the verge of setting age records for animals in captivity, the zoo has enough middle-aged animals and babies to keep its population healthy, Stadler said.

Generally, older animals are an indicator that the zoo population is receiving excellent care, Hilsenroth said.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small common toad or an old elephant that’s a matriarch of that zoo, the vet staff will treat both of them equal,” he said. “We’re bad about paying attention to what it costs.”

Aging Animals

A sample of some of the oldest animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium:

Name: Rocky

Animal: Kodiak bear

Age: 26

U.S. record for oldest Kodiak in captivity: 27

Average life span in the wild: 10 years

Names: Juma and Shiba

Animal: Lions

Age: Both are 18

U.S. record for oldest lion in captivity: 21 years old

Average life span in the wild: 10 years

Name: Mae

Animal: Gibbon

Age: About 35

U.S. record for oldest gibbon in captivity: Early 40s

Average life span in the wild: 25 to 30 years

Name: Zakula

Animal: Gorilla

Age: About 43

U.S. record for oldest gorilla in captivity: 55

Average life span in the wild: 30 to 35 years

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