Care for zoo animals has improved steadily over the last few decades with advancements in veterinary medicine, technology, nutrition, habitat design, training, and enrichment. As a result, zoo animals are enjoying healthy, long lives. But, as populations of senior animals increase, so do age-related health problems. Humans and animals share many of the same degenerative issues – joint problems, failing eyesight, organ failure, dental problems, dementia – and require special attention.
The Edmonton Valley Zoo currently is home to 358 animals including 118 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Zoo veterinarian, Dr. Marie-Josée Limoges, estimates that 20 to 25 percent are seniors, and entering the last stage of their life.
“For species of which we know the natural lifespan, we are aware when they enter their senior years, but for other species there is no data about their longevity so we rely on observations,” explains Dr. Limoges. “How are they behaving? How do they look? Has their appetite changed? We use quality of life assessments to monitor an animal’s general condition and determine whether therapy might be needed, or whether current treatments should be reviewed or altered.”
While treatments may involve medications or supplements, there are many ways to make animals more comfortable in their later years. Diets are adjusted: hard food is replaced with soft; hay is chopped for the ruminants. Heaters or fans are installed in their habitats so they can be comfy as temperatures fluctuate. Habitats are redesigned so beds, food and water are easier to access. Sometimes, the animal is “retired” and lives away from the public eye.
Animal Care Team Leader, Wade Krasnow, recently attended the two day workshop, Caring for Elderly Zoo Animals, hosted at the San Francisco Zoo. “Age is not a disease,” states Krasnow, “some older animals are very active and healthy and many are living past the longevity records for their species. We need to look at each animal individually, not as a species, to determine what special care that animal needs.”
Todd, our eleven and a half year old Fennec fox, is recovering after having an eye removed due to a painful condition called glaucoma. Though permanently off-exhibit, he enjoys splitting his time between the offices of Dr. Limoges and another staff member, where he is under careful watch.
“We give them a good, long, quality life to have reached old age, and now we’re trying to make their last years as comfortable and stress-free as possible,” shares Dr. Limoges.
As I exit the interview, I spot a little black rat happily curled up on the back of a zookeeper’s neck. The keeper is entering daily reports at the computer and Crawford is just hanging out. After a good career meeting guests and working with the education program, respiratory issues have forced her to retire.
Nonetheless, she looks like a happy rat!
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