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Caring for senior zoo citizens getting trickier

The Golden Years have arrived at the nation's zoos and aquariums, taking veterinarians and keepers, along with their animals, into a zone of unknowns.
Image:  Rollie, an Emporer Tamarin monkey
The signs of aging are apparent in Rollie, an Emporer Tamarin monkey. He only has six of 32 teeth left, and his white mustache grows longer by the month.Greg Neise / AP/Lincoln Park Zoo
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even as a youngster, Rollie looked older and wiser than his years. His white mustache sprouted longer by the month, until it flamed from his cheeks like a German kaiser's.

In the last few years, though, the tribulations of age — not just the appearance of it — have begun catching up with Rollie. His keepers are reminded each time they get a look past the Emperor Tamarin's flowing whiskers and into his jaws.

The tiny monkey, used to crunching away on raw sweet potato, has surrendered all but six of his 32 teeth to the toll of time.

At 17, Rollie — a resident of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo — is a senior citizen of his species. In the Amazon he almost certainly would never have made it this long.

In captivity, he's got plenty of company.

The Golden Years have arrived at the nation's zoos and aquariums, taking veterinarians and keepers, along with their animals, into a zone of unknowns.

Do female gorillas, living in to their 40s and 50s, experience menopause?

Can an aging lemur suffer from dementia?

How do you weigh the most difficult choice — between prolonging pain and ending life — when the patient is a venerable jaguar who feels like a member of the family?

'How old do animals really live?'
All those questions hang on a larger one that, until recent years, has been left to educated guesswork.

"How old do animals really live?" says Sharon Dewar, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln Park Zoo, whose keepers adjusted to Rollie's toothlessness by serving him soft-cooked veggies. "That's the million-dollar question."

Zeroing in on the answer takes years of tracking births, deaths and the age of animal populations. But zoos, which have pooled information since the 1970s, are drawing conclusions. For example, records show that the median age of Siberian tigers in zoos has reached 15 years old, up from just over 11 in the two decades ending in 1990.

Image: George, a 38 year old Tapir
**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 22** George, a near 38 year old Tapir, is seen at the San Antonio Zoo in ?San Antonio, Thursday, May 29, 2008. The Golden Years have arrived at the nation's zoos and aquariums, and that is taking veterinarians and keepers into a zone of unknowns. ?(AP Photo/Eric Gay)Eric Gay / AP

The increase in animal longevity is no mystery. Just as with people, health care for animals has become much more sophisticated.

At the San Antonio Zoo, keepers noticed that George, a 37-year-old tapir, was slowing down. His legs seemed stiffer and he had trouble getting up. The diagnosis was clear: arthritis.

First they put him on dietary supplements, then a prescription. Finally the zoo called in a specialist who performed acupuncture on George, inserting tiny needles at various medians in an effort to ease the pain.

Since then, George "acts like he's five years younger," says Rob Coke, the zoo's senior staff veterinarian.

Even as zoos improved care, they've also become much more careful and cooperative in managing animal populations, to make decisions about breeding. Keepers focus on more than just keeping animals healthy, creating habitats and social environments that will make them happy and less-stressed.

The result is more robust animals who live longer because life in a zoo or aquarium grants animals an exception to nature's laws of survival.

At the Minnesota Zoo, a pair of bottlenose dolphins have reached 44 and 42 years old, and in Florida a couple have reached their 50s.

"We know from studying the teeth of animals (dolphins) that have washed up on beaches...that there are no animals that old," says Kevin Willis, an expert on animal life expectancy at the Minnesota zoo, in the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley.

But aging comes with uncertainties, evident in the case of Fonzie, a California sea lion at the New York Aquarium.

For years, he was one of the top performers at the aquarium's amphitheater. But at 21, he's slowing down. He started hobbling. The corneas on his eyes turned cloudy. In X-rays, veterinarians noticed subtle changes in his bone structure.

"You know how it is when you have arthritis and in the winter time your bones creek because it's so damp and cold?" says Kate McClave, who runs the aquarium's onsite hospital. "Well, it's a similar thing for a marine mammal."

Image: Fonzie gives veterinarian Paul Calle a kiss
**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 22** California sea lion Fonzie gives veterinarian Paul Calle a kiss after his check-up at the new Aquatic Animal Health Center at the New York Aquarium in the Brooklyn borough of New York on April 1, 2008. The Golden Years have arrived at the nation's zoos and aquariums, and that is taking veterinarians and keepers into a zone of unknowns. (AP Photo/Shahrzad Elghanayan)Shahrzad Elghanayan / AP

Vets moved Fonzie to an indoor pool where the water temperature is closely controlled and put him on anti-inflammatories. Nearly three months later, the eggplant-shaped mammal lumbers in to the checkup room with all the grace of a sandbag. In exchange for a finned snack, he submits to a stethoscope, a few eye drops, an ultrasound and a look inside his mouth.

"This is one of our few patients that will actually say 'ahhhh,"' says Paul Calle, senior veterinarian for the Wildlife Conversation Society, which runs the aquarium.

Careful treatment appears to have eased Fonzie's discomfort. But his days as a performer are probably over. At the aquarium, his seniority is far from unusual. Immediately after his exam, keepers moved on to take a blood sample from Spook, a 43-year-old gray seal believed to be the oldest on record.

When do you take a gorilla off birth control?
That longevity confronts zoo managers with mysteries and doubts they've never really had to deal with before.

"The simple question was: 'Does a 41-year-old gorilla need to be on birth control?' And nobody really knew," says Sue Margulis, curator of primates at Lincoln Park.

The question applies to far more than the one gorilla at nearby Brookfield Zoo that provoked it. When Margulis and a fellow researcher set out to study the possibility of menopause in gorillas, they looked at 30 gorillas in 17 zoos around the country. Of those, 22 are considered geriatric, including one who's now 55.

About a quarter were no longer going through monthly menstrual cycles. But while gorillas in menopause spent much less time with the male silverbacks, most were quite healthy. In zoos, older female gorillas now sometimes play a grandmother role in childcare likely unique to captivity.

At the St. Louis Zoo, the uncertainties of aging have keepers wondering about Ruffles, a black-and-white ruffed lemur. At 31, he's a sage.

Some of Ruffle's problems are easily identifiable. He gets an anti-inflammatory pill twice a day — he likes it tucked inside a grape — to combat the pain of spinal arthritis.

But there's no easy diagnosis for another symptom. At times, Ruffles seems to be staring off into nowhere.

"Dementia is one of those things that's very difficult to pin down just because we can't use the same sort of testing as we do with humans," says Joe Knobbe, St. Louis' zoological manager of primates.

The best keepers can do is make Ruffles comfortable, including installing a tiny hanging platform where the lemur, who no longer climbs like a young primate, enjoys resting with a blanket.

Many zoos have modified animal habitats to ease geriatric residents into retirement. At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a black bear named Spike and his sister Missoula are no longer youngsters. The 22-year-old siblings both have arthritis and Missoula gets inner ear infections that affect her balance. They struggled to reach their den on the third tier of an exhibit featuring steep artificial cliffs.

So in December, the pair moved to a new enclosure, with gently graded ramps and a sloping pool. They'll spend their lives there, off-exhibit, while the zoo renovates the old enclosure so that new bears will be able to age in place.

When quality of life erodes
Arizona-Sonora is obligated to care for Spike and Missoula as long as their quality of life can be assured, says Craig Ivanyi of the museum, outside Tucson. The challenge is deciding what to do when quality of life begins to ebb away.

Examination after death often finds animals "suffer from a range of health problems that may not have been apparent when they were alive," a group of mostly Swiss veterinarians wrote in an article published last year in the journal Animal Welfare.

"Zoos often unwittingly condemn their animals to long painful lives," wrote the authors, calling on zoos to use a scoring system to evaluate geriatric animals' quality of life in order to make more informed decisions about euthanasia.

Animals' instincts remain rooted in the wild, where survival requires covering up weaknesses. But keepers sense when something's wrong.

At the El Paso Zoo, keepers noticed six years ago that Sheba, their regal black jaguar, was faltering. Worsening arthritis made it difficult for her to climb. Her kidneys were failing. Cataracts limited her ability to see.

By last fall, as Sheba neared her 27th birthday, pain and weakness were winning out. That left the zoo's veterinary staff, managers and keepers with a difficult choice.

"It's a lot easier to second-guess yourself when you say, well, she probably would've lived four more days, slipping slowly down the slope," said Victoria Milne, the zoo's veterinarian.

They decided not to wait. On Nov. 8, vets anesthetized Sheba, then administered an intravenous drip that shut down the big cat's body for good.

Then, as she lay there, keepers, vets and other zoo workers gathered around the cat they'd cared for for 17 years. Some whispered a few words, others reached out to lay a hand on her glossy black coat as they wept.

Like many of the zoo's other geriatric animals, their girl had lived a long, full life. But that didn't make it any easier to say goodbye.