Age is Just a Number
Animals tend to live longer due to the excellent quality of care they receive while under managed care at institutions like the Virginia Zoo. This can be attributed to many factors. In the wild, older animals would be easy prey for a predator. Animals that succumb to illnesses and injuries are left untreated. Food and water shortages, climate change and deforestation decrease livable habitat space and cause animals to be pushed out of their normal territories and slowly starve. In human care, animals’ behaviors, diets and overall wellness are documented, managed, and designed for each individual animal at each stage of their lives, allowing for longer and healthier lives. Animals also undergo veterinary care as a part of a routine preventative health program to ensure they remain healthy.
Due to this excellent quality of care that they receive, many of the Zoo’s animal residents are considered elderly. Just like humans, as animals age, they acquire many of the same conditions such as arthritis, dental problems, congestive heart failure, and chronic kidney disease. The Zoo’s Animal Care Team, which consist of the Veterinarian, Veterinary Technicians and Zoo Keepers, monitor all the animals for subtle signs or symptoms of these ailments. Some of these assessments include:
- Can this animal display behavior that is normal for its species (i.e. grazing, climbing, digging, foraging, etc.) for an average length of time?
- Is this animal interacting normally with Zoo Keepers, exhibit mates and enrichment items/toys?
- Can this animal move around normally and acquire food, water and shelter?
- Does this animal have a normal appetite, activity level, behavior, sleep habits and normal urine/feces?
- Can this animal maintain its normal body weight?
- Does this animal have clear eyes and ears, and is it able to groom itself to keep its skin/feathers/pelage healthy?
All of these assessments are utilized to determine if an animal may be developing conditions related to old age. If so this may be cause for a thorough diagnostic workup. If one of these conditions is identified, Animal Care staff will accommodate to this animal’s specific needs and formulate a wellness plan specific to that animal and ensure they are comfortable in the final stages of their lives. This may include modifying their diet, offering daily supplements or medications, or developing a physical therapy or exercise regimen.
A great example of end-of-life care for an elderly animal is the Virginia Zoo’s binturong, Tasik, who is 20 years old. A binturong’s life expectancy in the wild is 18 years. Another example is, Mramba, the Zoo’s 17-year-old male lion. The life expectancy of a lion in the wild is 14 years. Both of these animals were diagnosed with osteoarthritis by the Animal Care team and started on medications, supplements, and specialized diets to help cater to their special needs and keep them active and pain-free in their final stages of life. The dedicated Animal Care staff were also able to train “Mramba” to voluntarily participate in his own health care and because of this he was started on laser therapy to help decrease inflammation in his aging joints and slow the progress of the arthritis!
When an older animal eventually does pass on, decisions have to be made about what to do with their exhibit if it’s left vacant. The Zoo has an Institutional Collection Plan (ICP), which is a formal, zoo-wide evaluation of the current animal collection, as well as goals and planning for the future of the zoo and its animals. The ICP is responsible for preemptively planning for the zoo’s future and its animals as it pertains to the organization’s mission, goals and master plan. The ICP is used to guide the collection’s future development, as well as determine the animal species that are at the highest global conservation need to better serve the conservation initiatives of the zoo, while utilizing the current space and resources that are in place. The Virginia Zoo’s plan is generated by input from Zoo Keepers, the Veterinary team, the Zoo management team, and guidance from the Species Survival Plan (SSP). Having this plan in place ensures the continuation of a thriving animal population, conservation of endangered species and diversity of the animals that guests experience in the zoo visit.
Several habitats around the Zoo have the potential to transform into habitats for different species, including completely new species not currently found at the Zoo. This is also one of the goals of the ICP- to evaluate if there are species that are in higher conservation need which could better utilize the current exhibit space and global conservation efforts for endangered species.
The Virginia Zoo is home to many elderly animals, and like other accredited zoos across the country they receive exceptional care. It’s an all-staff effort to manage this process, from caring for the animals, wellness checks and diet plans, to educating visitors and telling each animal’s story. With each new animal birth, health challenge, or successful conservation success story we are learning, growing, and providing life-long memories and educational experiences for our visitors and community.