Senior Care at the Zoo

May 14, 2018

When Seneca Park Zoo’s oldest resident arrived in Rochester, Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States and a gallon of gasoline cost just 34 cents. Can you guess who it is and when she arrived?

Believe it or not, Gertrude, one of two king vultures at Seneca Park Zoo (see featured image above; photo by Marie Kraus), was born in 1966 and arrived at the Zoo in 1968. According to statistics provided by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), king vultures have a life expectancy of 29 years. At 50 years old, Gertrude is 10 years older than 40-year-old African elephant Genny C, who herself is two years past the life expectancy of African elephants in zoos. And, she is nearly two times older than 26-year-old Lou, everyone’s favorite spotted hyena, who is the oldest hyena ever in conservation care.

A lifetime of excellent nutrition, veterinary care, and mental stimulation means our Zoo animals are living longer than ever before. Since we commit to each animal for its lifetime, this longevity means that we have to consider the senior needs of many of our animals in novel ways. For example, Lucy, our spider monkey, has experienced significant tooth wear over the course of her 43-year life, so we cut her food into very small pieces and soften her biscuits to make sure she can eat properly. Genny C, Lou, and Katya, our 13-year-old Amur tiger, all receive a joint supplement each day to help them maintain healthy joints and cartilage as they age. Physical and mental stimulation are also critically important as animals age. In the winter, you might find our elephant keepers jogging around the barn to keep the elephants moving.

Lou the Hyena with enrichment
Lou the Hyena with enrichment. Photo by Wayne Smith.

In the spring and summer, you may have seen Lou the hyena in action playing fetch and doing other behaviors with a zoo keeper. These interactions not only provide Lou with important physical therapy, but mental stimulation in the form of problem solving and cognition as well.

These little things mean our animals live comfortably into their golden years. While definitely a good thing, it also means that we see diseases related to old age that don’t often occur in the natural range. The most common condition is arthritis, a disease many older people have that causes joint pain. Several of our African penguins, including 24-year-old Fred and 23-year-old Herbie, receive meloxicam, an anti-inflammatory drug, and tramadol, a pain medication, in their fish to keep them comfortable.

Because older animals would become prey or die of poor nutrition in their natural range, we also see diseases like cancer, heart disease, and kidney and liver disease as our animals exceed their normal life expectancies. When these diseases occur, keepers, managers, and veterinary staff all work together to pursue treatment options and to carefully evaluate the animal’s quality of life. When we can no longer keep an animal comfortable, euthanasia is considered only after all treatment options have been explored. It is never an easy decision, but is one that we make as a team of caregivers dedicated to providing the best quality of life we can.

Look forward to seeing many of our senior ambassadors at the Zoo!

– Dr. Louis DiVincenti, Director of Animal Health and Conservation