Caring For Niabi’s Older Animals – reprinted from the Quad City Times

The following is a reprint from a Quad City Times article written by Barb Ickes.  Doctor Lauren Hughes of Animal Family Veterinary Care Center also cares for The Niabi Zoo animals.  Most of our clients have an active interest in the zoo so we wanted to make sure you all had a chance to read the article.

 

COAL VALLEY — The zookeepers at Niabi hope to soften the blow.

Death may not be imminent, but it will come. And it is time to prepare.

Several of Niabi Zoo’s residents would be in nursing homes by now if such an option existed. It doesn’t, so the keepers are doing their best to make their seniors comfortable and content as age and nature conspire against them.

Growing old is not much different for animals from the way it is for humans. The process spares no breed.mufasa

Mufasa, a lion born at Niabi, will be 21 years old this year. His life expectancy in the wild would have expired six or seven years ago. His large, keen eyes are fogging with cataracts, and his appetite is waning. He moves more slowly than before, and he shows little interest in going outdoors.

Carnivore keeper Jessica Lench Porter is Mufasa’s primary keeper, but her position requires more than doling out doses of high-protein horse meat and daily medications.

One of the most valuable skills Porter and the other keepers have to offer their geriatric menagerie is knowing them well enough to recognize a natural decline.

For Mufasa and several others, the decline has begun.

‘Mufasa is an icon here’

Niabi’s two female lions, Savanna and Nala, are about half Mufasa’s age.

One has been spayed, and the other is on birth control. Although the nearly 21-year-old male remains capable of fathering their cubs, he lacks the paperwork to prove he would be a good candidate.

“Part of his genetics are unknown,” zoo Director Marc Heinzman said. “We don’t want to accidentally interbreed.”

Mufasa did, in fact, sire two cubs. One had to be put down after it was seriously injured in an enclosure-door malfunction, and the other died of natural causes. It is impossible, zoo officials said, to know whether genetics played a role in the latter fatality. Heinzman said the pregnancy occurred before he was zoo director, and he does not know why it was permitted.

But the point is moot now, anyway.

Mufasa lives separately from the two females that occupy Niabi’s main lion exhibit. He has been bunking for two years with the jaguar and leopards that live in the large cat area. All three lions were moved there in 2012, when work was being done on the lion exhibit. Although Savanna and Nala have been returned to the lion house, he is not going back.

Some controversy has surrounded the decision to keep Mufasa sequestered from the other lions. Members of the public have complained that he should remain with the pride because of lions’ social nature.

But it is best, keepers say, for Mufasa to live out his life right where he is. His eyesight is too poor to hope that he could manage the transition.

“He wouldn’t know his surroundings,” Porter said. “We’re not going to set him up to fail.”

As it is, Mufasa is experiencing enough failures. He has become increasingly stubborn and less motivated by food. His usual daily feeding of nine pounds of raw meat has been reduced to seven pounds, and he often leaves some behind.

All four of his thumb-sized canine teeth are chipped from wear, and the last time he was sedated for a medical procedure, it took him days to recover.

“In the wild, he’d have been kicked out of the pride because of his age,” Porter said. “The best thing we can do is look out for him.”

To give proper care, the keeper continues old training routines that keep Mufasa in a cooperative spirit. With daily reminders of what is expected of him, the old male usually complies when Porter makes her demands.

“If I can get him to stand up, I can see his underside,” she said. “He can present both sides, and he can follow the command to open his mouth, so we can see his teeth.

“But it’s also very important that I know what’s going on with him in other ways. I need to know, for instance, if he’s favoring one side when he chews his food. I need to spot any changes in him.”

Niabi’s house veterinarian, Dr. Lauren Hughes, said the keepers are her “eyes and ears” when she is not on the grounds.

“Because they work with the collection every day, they are able to see sudden changes in normal behavior, which can include a decreased appetite, loss of body condition or even something as simple as not coming out of their hiding places or dens as frequently,” she said. “Although these changes may all seem subtle, we have actually been able to catch illnesses very early in several animals in the collection due to their keen observations.”

Porter also can spot personality quirks.

In Mufasa’s case, he finds a bellowing territory call to be necessary throughout the day. A once-or-twice-a-day call is sufficient for most male lions, but Mufasa throws back his mane and produces a chest-vibrating series of roars at least once an hour.

The scale that he agreeably steps onto every two weeks shows he is down 38 pounds from his maximum weight of 410.

“He still has good body condition,” Porter said. “He’s giving us no reason to euthanize him. He’s just in that geriatric stage. Mufasa is an icon here. People come just to see him.

“The day will come when he isn’t here. In the meantime, he’s in the only place he’s ever known. He knows what to expect from me, and he is well fed and cared for. I’ve been here for 13 years, and you obviously form an attachment, but you also have to keep a distance.

“Old age comes to wild animals just like it does for people. You accept it.”

Jackson the jaguar

Although Mufasa has a good track record of cooperating in the care-critical task of bimonthly weigh-ins, one of his enclosure mates has his own ideas.jackson the jag

Sometimes, when Porter pushes the big-cat scale into his enclosure, Jackson the jaguar takes off with it. If someone told him the four-foot-long metal scale is not a toy, Jackson wasn’t listening.

Turning 20 this year, the jet-black jag also is well beyond his prime. Big cats in the wild are lucky to survive into their early-to-mid-teens, Porter said.

“At the end of December, tests showed he’s in early kidney failure,” she said. “His appetite also is diminishing. These are things we want people to know. Instead of reacting when we have a death, we want the public to know what’s going on.”

For now, Jackson is holding his own.

“He’s definitely still got it,” Porter said. “He’s still agile. He’s not one to pace. He’s a stalker. He sits there and thinks things through.”

He also has his quirks, including a fascination with his medicine-ball-like toy, which is made of tightly wound fire hose.

“That’s one of his favorite things,” she said. “He drags it everywhere.”

He also sucks on his tail.

“I’m not alarmed by it, because he’s done it for at least 10 years,” she said. “I have no idea why.

“We can’t convey enough how important it is that we know their behaviors, so they don’t suffer in any way. I think of it this way: If you’re getting older, and your eyesight is going, kidneys failing and appetite diminishing, don’t you want care?

“We have all these bottles with different scents — even some spices and extracts. We hide these things in their enclosures, changing up smells and toys. Mental stimulation is hugely important to quality of life, and people forget to apply that to animals, too.

“We want the end of their lives to be comfortable.”

Two tamarins

Even though their enclosure is small, cotton-top tamarins Eddie and Goose are not easy to spot.

Among the smallest of all primates, the two are similar in size to squirrels. Frequently spending their time side-by-size in their new exhibit in the zoo’s main entrance, they are easily dwarfed by their roommate, a two-toed sloth.

Now in their golden years, the tamarins are empty-nesters.

The life expectancy for tamarins in the wild is 13. Eddie will be 14 this year, and Goose will turn 13.

“They’ve had many babies,” Porter said. “They’ve been here most of their lives.”

The tiny primates are new charges for Porter, who is learning to care for and train the pair.

“I’m not 100 percent confident with primates, so I don’t hand-feed them,” she said as she slipped through a small door and into their enclosure last week. “Training them to go into a crate is important, so they don’t have to be captured.

“Also, with these guys being geriatric, we need them to get on a scale.”

The two, especially Eddie, are showing no signs of letting up on their food motivation.

As Porter entered their enclosure with a plastic cup of meal worms, Eddie made his move. The tamarins have been trained to expect their food after touching a “target.” In their case, the target is a wand-sized stick with a green bulb at one end. When they touch the bulb, Porter blows on a small whistle, and they are permitted to reach in for a meal worm.

In his excitement, Eddie emits frequent bird-like chirps and reaches repeatedly for the target.

“They really like insects,” Porter said. “They’re easy for them to eat, too. We have to cook some of their food to make it easier. We soften the potatoes that are added to their Primate Diet food.”

After spending decades with big cats and Niabi’s now-relocated elephants, Porter said she is enjoying the challenge of learning more about the petite primates.

“You definitely get their personalities,” she said. “They have a very complex vocalization system. They have an ear-piercing alarm call. I was doing an educational tour in this room recently, and I got out one of the snakes. The tamarins screamed their heads off.”

The ongoing training with Eddie and Goose, along with close and frequent observation, make it possible for them to survive several more years. But their continued longevity is not guaranteed.

“If you come one day and enjoy seeing them, and they’re not here on the next visit, you have to understand: They’re getting up there,” Porter said. “We have to face it

From the zoo’s vet

Dr. Lauren Hughes is the house veterinarian at Niabi Zoo. She explained:Lauren BIO pic 2

“In regards to the senior animals in our collection: It is a testament to the hard work and care of the zoo staff that their longevity is even an issue, and as frustrating as this may be, it is a great issue to have.

“Due to the high quality of care for these animals, they are well outliving their expected survival rates in the wild. That being said, this presents a new series of challenges similar to those that people face with their domestic pets.

“For example, renal disease is one of the most common diseases of geriatric felines. The same holds true for exotic felines in zoo collections.

“In a domestic setting, we can manage these animals by changing their diets, modifying their care plans to include extra means of hydration like fluids under the skin, and monitoring their blood pressure. In a zoo collection, all of these options are not always possible due to safety reasons with these large, apex predators.

“Their diets are already optimized to the highest protein possible, and there isn’t always an ability to administer fluids or monitor blood pressure without compromising staff safety or using sedatives, which isn’t always the safest option for the animal in question or their underlying illnesses.