No AARP for aging zoo animals, but they get special diets, easy-entry pool, other accommodations

Staff works to keep elderly residents mobile, safe

CINCINNATI -- As humans progress into their senior years, they often need a little extra care and assistance to make life easier. At the Cincinnati Zoo, the same holds true for some of the aging furry, feathered and scaled residents who need a bit more TLC in their daily routines.

According to curator of mammals Mike Dulaney, as animals advance in years they experience many of the same problems as aging humans -- mobility issues, vision impairment and nutritional deficiencies. In the wild, many times animals perish when they can no longer forage for food or protect themselves due to advanced age. But under professional care, animals can live well into their golden years, he said, like the zoo’s pair of white tigers, female Popsy and male Akere.

Mike Dulaney, curator of mammals at Cincinnati Zoo, said staff members make accommodations to aging animals' diets, habitat and health care. Photo by Christine Charlson

“They both turned 20 this year,” Dulaney said. “In the wild, a tiger 10 to 12 is getting up there because it’s pretty hard to keep up with the prey that they catch, but in professional care they can often make it up to 15 and even longer.”

Last year, zoo officials noticed the pair struggling a bit to navigate the hills in their exhibit in Cat Canyon. To help, they added multiple levels and ramps so the tigers could make a gradual climb, along with more shade trees and heated rocks for year-round lounging. But most importantly, a water area was renovated for easier summer access.

“Tigers are one of the few cats that love water,” Dulaney said. “The pool was a bit too deep for them to get in and out of, so we added a jutted-out area which is much shallower and has a step in there. They can still go to the deep end, but they can climb in and out a lot easier.”

Just as people purchase special food for their senior domestic pets, Dulaney said the elder tigers’ diets need to be modified to ensure they get sufficient nutrients and caloric intake. He said the two go through regular vet checks using the least invasive, most gentle methods possible. Keepers and vet staff trained the tigers to present their tails for blood draws so they won’t have to be sedated.

“I think one of the oldest tigers in captivity I heard lived to about 25, but it’s just like people, there might be someone who lives to 115, but most of us aren’t going to see that,” he said. “But the fact that they’ve lived for 20 years is pretty amazing. And they’re in relatively good health.”

In addition to modifying existing exhibits, the zoo also creates special accommodations for some aging residents. At Wildlife Canyon, 16-year-old LiWu lives in the zoo’s red panda retirement home, said senior keeper at Wildlife Canyon Lissa Browning. The elder female lives in a space retrofitted to accommodate her arthritic hips along with providing an array of soft bedding for napping on multiple levels. Browning said as LiWu’s nails have deformed with age, climbing is difficult for her now.

“We put these ramps up to help her get up to the top box, because she loves to sleep there,” she said. “We had logs, but it was getting to the point where it was precarious for her to get up on them, she didn’t seem comfortable, so we gave her a wider platform to climb up.”

Senior keeper at Wild Canyon Lissa Browning feeds Beilei in her perch at the red panda condo. Photo by Christine Charlson

Besides a few mobility issues, Browning said, LiWu is in good health. She still shows her creative muse by painting pictures with her paws, with proceeds from sales going to a conservation fund. Browning said it’s always LiWu’s choice whether she wants to be active or laid-back. While she may be a bit less spry these days, Browning said, the female red panda still boasts a hearty appetite, especially when it comes to her favorite bananas and apples.

“That’s something else we have to be careful with because she is more sedentary than the younger pandas,” she said. “We do have to restrict her diet so she doesn’t get obese, because that could put more pressure on the arthritis.”

In the wild, red pandas are solitary animals, Browning said, but at the retirement condo LiWu has a roommate, 6-year-old female Beilei. The younger red panda came to the Cincinnati Zoo because her former facility couldn’t accommodate her special needs, as she has cataracts, Browning said. The two pandas have only been together a short time, but Browning said they seem to coexist well in the space.

“We’ll also bring the cubs down here once we’ve weened them and before we send them to another institution,” she said. “They come down here and they meet an adult panda because that just helps them with someone other than their parent to get used to and socialize with and learn new boundaries.”

Other seniors at the zoo include 28-year-old sea lion Duke (see Duke turn 27), 46-year-old gorilla Samantha, a 33-year-old female python and warty and pot-bellied pigs in their late teens, to name a few, Dulaney said. Besides vets on staff, he said, the zoo has access to specialists in every discipline to accommodate the needs of the aging population, including dental, vision, bone health and cardiac care.

“It depends on the species and what we need and how we can best care for them in their golden years,” he said. “It’s all about making them more comfortable, keeping a closer eye on them and giving them a lot of TLC.”

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