Zoo manages "geriatric" animal collection

Ben Okimoto
Ben Okimoto

By Brooks Baehr - bio | email

WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Old age is creeping up on animals at the Honolulu Zoo.

"I think what we have here overall is a fairly geriatric animal collection," said Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo.

Zoo animals are getting better care than ever, so they are living longer, and the longer they live the more age related problems they experience. Those health problems create challenges for zoo keepers.

"Come on Scar," said a keeper as she tried to coax the 17 and a half year old cheetah into a covered enclosure. Zoo veterinarian Ben Okimoto said he believes Scar is the oldest cheetah in the United States.

"He's doing real well considering the problems he has which include kidney disease. He's got arthritis. He has cataracts. He's getting hard of hearing. He can't see very well. But he's still getting by," Okimoto said.

Scar has been taken out of the cheetah exhibit and is now housed behind the scenes in a kind of hospice setting.

"What we're seeing here is, I think, similar to what private practitioners are starting to see with pet animals. The better care that they get, the better diets are available to them … they live longer," Okimoto said.

As the animals live longer, they experience more and more health problems associated with old age.

Kruger the White Rhinoceros is 26, and his kidneys are failing.

"Probably the biggest challenge is understanding the animal is ill. You know, animals unlike humans don't complain. They are genetically hardwired not to show weakness, because the minute the show weakness they are going to be selected out of the population. So our keepers really have to be very very in tune with their particular animal," Mollinedo said.

Mollinedo pointed out that Kruger, Scar, and other old animals at the zoo would have already perished in the wild. In captivity many will live so long they will have to be euthanised.

"Quality of life is extremely important. We love these animals. We don't want to have them suffer unnecessarily because we want to keep them around. There's got to be a point in time when we've got to make a very difficult decision and lay them to rest simply because it's in the best interest of the animal," said Mollinedo.

Chris Kehlor has been an Animal Keeper at the zoo for four years. In that time she has grown close to Kruger.

"It's very hard for all of us, but we want to give him the best we can, like we always have. We're going to see him through it all. And he's hanging in there very well," Kehlor said.

Kruger may have only months or weeks to live, but he has not been put in the same kind of behind the scenes hospice facility where Scar is kept. Visitors can still see Kruger roaming the African Savannah with other animals.

Mollinedo hopes to lower the average age of animals at the zoo by breeding some of the animals already there and bringing in young animals from other zoos

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