Last week’s Live Keeper Talk was all about geriatric animals! We sat down with Hannah, our animal husbandry manager, to talk about our senior residents, how we care for them, and why you should care about them.
What makes an animal geriatric?
“Geriatric” is a general term that refers to an animal in the final third of their expected lifespan. This varies from species to species.
How is care of geriatrics different than caring for younger animals?
Younger animals are “bouncier,” higher energy, and more interactive with their environment. Geriatric animals are monitored for different types of behaviors. While a younger animal would exhibit excited interaction with enrichment, an older animal of the same species may be less interested or display lower energy. They may also experience a decrease in appetite and an increase in sleeping habits.
Why should people care about geriatric animals?
Senior animals can teach us a lot. They can show us new behavior patterns as well as teach us a lot medically about their species, which allows us to tailor our care practices to their comfort.
It’s also an investment. You may have four dogs over your lifetime, but to each dog, that experience was their entire life.
Caring for animals into seniorhood is a big responsibility that you sign up for, and they deserve every welfare investment that any animal of any age does.
What’s the best part of caring for geriatric animals?
A lot of our animals are geriatric, and we get to see how their behavior relaxes into confidence that they are being taken care of for life. They also display goofy behaviors, like Daisy’s upside-down roll that she uses to solicit for attention or food. A younger animal probably wouldn’t show such vulnerability.
What’s the hardest part of caring for geriatric animals?
The hardest part of caring for any animal, regardless of age, is the inevitability of their eventual loss. Here at the Center, we’ve developed what’s called a “quality of life protocol.” It quantifies an animal’s quality of life, so instead of our assessment being emotional – because we love all of the animals – we put a numerical identity to it. So instead saying “I feel this” about an animal’s wellbeing, we can say “I observed this.” Being able to translate it that way makes it easier to objectively communicate with our veterinarians and senior staff.
To know that an animal’s quality of life and comfort relies on you is a heavy burden. We are moving toward training that promotes self-care for keepers, not just the animals, because making these decisions is hard for us as well.
What can we learn from geriatric animals?
We see that as animals age and become more comfortable in their environment, they sort of modify their behavior. The more we observe this, the more likely we are to find that “comfort point” sooner. Whether it’s keeper investment in the animal, socialization time, environmental manipulation with enrichment, etc. – if there is something we can do to make animals more comfortable, we should do that. And whether we’re learning about that from older animals or younger ones, there’s education everywhere and we’re still learning every day.
Another important thing is learning how to connect geriatric animals to the community.
A lot of people love young animals, but if we can create that investment into the long term, and show people the cool stuff they can share with an older animal, it would help our overall message of conservation. This is a real life-long situation that we get to share with the animals.
What kind of things do keepers do to make sure animals are comfortable and healthy as they age?
When we do exhibit design, we like to consider “cradle to grave.” Geriatric animals may not be able to go up the same set of stairs as a younger animal – maybe because of arthritis or other issues – so we modify their habitat to suit their abilities. We’ll be a little more sensitive to temperature or weather changes as well and provide extra bedding or more insulated bedding year-round.
We also use medications and diet for comfort care. Some animals may need anti-inflammatories or supplements that ease the symptoms of arthritis or other age-related issues. We may also modify their diet if the condition of their teeth changes.
When and why did you decide to become a zookeeper?
I was about 7 and thought I wanted to be a vet, but realized I’d only see animals when they were sick. When I was a junior or senior in high school, I found a university that offered a zoo science major, and the rest is history! Zoo science was really cool because it was sort of a mix between zoology and psychology. We’re realizing now that keeping animals under human care isn’t just about keeping them healthy – making sure they eat and they drink and they’re clean – but is also making sure that they are stimulated and cared for mentally.
Now I’ve been in the field for about 12 years, and being able to see it grow and change is great; I’m still continuing my education every day. It’s hard sometimes, and we all work for nonprofits so we don’t make a lot of money, but
being able to have a different day every day and being able to share our lives with these animals – I don’t think I’d trade it for anything.
More than half of our animals are geriatric and all of them are special, but are there a couple that people should absolutely come visit?
Definitely come see Tres. She is one of the the oldest ocelots in the country at 26 years old. She’s still adorably interactive. When her adopters bring her scent enrichment like fresh rosemary or basil, she comes out of her denbox and will rub all over the herb and roll around with it.
Daisy, who we mentioned earlier, is a great senior resident to come see. We call her the “goofy goober” because she can go so quickly from lazily lying around to bouncing all over her habitat. Seeing her funny behaviors always makes my day.
I really like how much the center has been promoting our geriatrics. Sometimes other facilities will move animals out of display exhibits when they start showing signs of advanced aging. It’s easier to just take them out of the spotlight than to educate people. Or sometimes a facility will be scared to talk about why an animal has passed away. But it’s just nature. It doesn’t have to be scary. It will always be sad for those of us who care for these animals, but it’s something that we can learn from. It’s also something that we can share. A lot of the animals here at the Center have been here for their entire lives, so there are people who have known them for many years. It’s really cool to see an animal as a cub or juvenile, and then come back and see them as a 14 year old.
Having long term animals like we do makes our goal of advocacy for wildlife more attainable, and dealing with loss is certainly easier with a supportive community of people who have known the animal for so long.