Grieving the Loss of an Animal in Our Care

June 19, 2020

When a Zoo animal dies, we share the news and as many details as possible. We know how much our community mourns the loss of an animal at the Zoo.

While an animal’s death might seem like the end, for the animal care professionals who cared for that individual, it begins a grieving process. Although these animals are not pets, and not ours, there is a similar sense of loss, the same grieving that comes with losing a companion animal. We form relationships with the animals in our care, many of which last many years. And, just like when a pet ages, the relationship often becomes even stronger towards the end as a result of the increased care that geriatric animals require.

After an animal dies, there are food bowls, favorite toys or blankets that must be put away. Dens or shelters need to be cleaned, sometimes to be left empty for a long period of time. All are sad reminders of a living being that touched us in some way. On top of that, we need to answer questions from guests about the animal; like where they are (not everyone may know they passed away) or how they died. Legitimate inquiries for sure, and we welcome the genuine interest in them, but talking about an animal you cared for that is no longer with us while containing your emotions in the process can be difficult. Although zoo keepers have the best jobs in the world, this is an unfortunate part of a commitment to a lifetime of care.

The recent death of our older female otter Sara prompted me to reflect on these experiences. While we had been treating Sara for several age-related conditions and knew she had outlived her life expectancy, her sudden decline made things all the more difficult. However, after going through some video I took on my last day with Sara, I thought sharing both might bring some closure and peace of mind, not only for me and her other caregivers but the thousands of our guests who sent their thoughts to us since the announcement. It might also shed some light on a seldom talked about subject that everyone who cares for animals has experienced.

So, here’s Sweet Sara, casually chasing down some fish and generally enjoying herself the day before she died. In reality, this is the kind of the end-of-life experience we want, happy until the end. This was a great day for us both, and that is the memory of her that I will always carry with me.

– Brian Sheets, Zoologist

North American River Otter Sara. Photo by Wayne Smith