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Zoos are getting creative about caring for older animals

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As humans age, our medical needs change. That's true for animals. Zoos are increasingly concerned with the needs of their older residents. Some are getting creative about how they care for these elderly animals. WYPR's Scott Maucione reports from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: Like many in their older years, Joice is dealing with hip arthritis.

MELISSA SOMOGYI: She is on a joint supplement, and she also gets ibuprofen as needed if she is feeling a bit sore.

MAUCIONE: That's Melissa Somogyi. She's a zookeeper, and Joice is a chimpanzee. At 51 years old, Joice is well past the average lifespan for her species. They usually live to be about 40. Today, she's blowing raspberries at her zookeepers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIMPANZEE BLOWING RASPBERRIES)

MAUCIONE: The arthritis has limited her range of motion and caused some walking issues.

SOMOGYI: One of the coolest things that we do with her is a kind of like a physical therapy.

MAUCIONE: Unlike human patients, chimps have one of the strongest bites in nature at 1,300 pounds per square inch. The physical therapy can be a little tricky. The zookeepers always keep a barrier between them and the chimps. They fashioned special PVC pipes to stick through the bars.

SOMOGYI: So we will do a training session with her every day, and we will move her feet around in different positions and locations and really just stretch out those legs and hips. And that seems to help her quite a bit.

MAUCIONE: Joice lays on her back - think happy baby pose - and rests her feet on the pipes. Zoos are trying to think critically about their aging animals as new science comes out on how to care for them. Brian Aucone is a senior vice president for life sciences at the Denver Zoo.

BRIAN AUCONE: So as an animal is getting to old age, what does that mean? What are the things that we need to do differently?

MAUCIONE: Animals in captivity often live longer. They don't have to worry about getting eaten by predators. And unlike their peers in the wild, they also have access to preventative care.

AUCONE: Whether that's from an animal health standpoint with our vet team, whether from a care standpoint, you know, nutrition.

MAUCIONE: Back at the Maryland Zoo, keepers are opening large gates, and two giraffes scamper out for the day. Caesar's a 16-year-old reticulated giraffe. He's 18 feet tall and 2,400 pounds. His enormous size makes him prone to joint and hoof issues, especially now that he's hitting the upper end of his species' average lifespan. Dr. Ellen Bronson's the director of animal health at the Maryland Zoo.

ELLEN BRONSON: Caesar is very gregarious. He's very involved in his own care.

MAUCIONE: As zoos learn more about animals, they try to keep consent in mind. They teach animals to come to the gates to receive care. If the animals decline some treatment and it's not critical, zookeepers respect their decision.

BRONSON: He participates voluntarily in his medication administration, which is currently being done intramuscularly with syringes.

MAUCIONE: Zookeepers spend a lot of time here, sometimes more than with their human families at home. They're also aware that these are wild animals and are careful not to treat them like pets. Still, they have strong attachments.

BRONSON: We watch them grow up under our care. We watch them, you know, have their first tumbles. We take care of them as they become parents themselves and then as they age. And we're also with them at the very end.

MAUCIONE: That's Dr. Ellen Bronson again.

BRONSON: We are able to euthanize animals at the end when we think that their quality of life is no longer acceptable.

MAUCIONE: When that happens, being able to end their suffering in their final days, she says, is a true gift.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Maucione