We all get to a certain time in our life where we start to slow down, aches and pains start to creep in and we may need to go to the doctor more often. It’s exactly the same for animals. As they age they also begin to slow down, become less mobile, and perhaps age related illnesses start to occur. How we manage these in a captive setting differs greatly to caring for fit, young animals.
It is well documented that captive animals live longer than their wild counterparts, but why is this?
In the wild any form of weakness whether an animal is injured, ill or just weak is preyed upon by predators and rivals. They may be forced to leave groups or just get left behind because they can’t keep up.
Predators are experts on seeing weakness and will easily take down an animal which is struggling.
Older wild animals still also have to look for food, whether they are hunters or foragers animals still need to be able to find something to eat and if this gets compromised then illness and death will soon follow. Wild animals do not have access to veterinary care in many cases. Any illnesses or injuries when treatable are cared for by staff and veterinarians in a captive setting.
Captive animals also have the luxury of shelter and warm areas to sleep in with fresh bedding which animals in the wild don’t have access to.
So what can we do to make our golden oldies comfortable?
Firstly we make sure that they are eating well. Older animals may need adjustments to their diets such as, softer foods, foods cut into smaller pieces, higher calorie foods or being fed more frequently.
Some animals as they get older may develop teeth issues. You can’t get a set of dentures for a lion or chimpanzee and therefore giving them softer, easier food to eat may help them to get the nutrients they need. Some zoos also put into place end of life care diets for their geriatric animals. This may be where an animal is coming to the end of its life and staff decide that it is time to treat them to foods they usually would not be allowed or give them more of the foods that they enjoy.
We can also make enclosure adjustments to ensure that older animals find it easier to get around. For example instead of having round climbing beams these may be adjusted to having a flat surface with more grip. Zoo’s also put in place extra steps to allow animals to not have to jump up or down to get inside houses. Extra sleeping areas or bedding may also be added to give greater comfort for animals when they lay down to rest.
Medication and supplements can be given to help control age related illnesses. Did you know that we give our chimpanzees daily cod liver oil tablets? This is to help with their joints, to keep them supple and let’s say well oiled. Pain control may be used in the form of tablets or liquids. Some zoos are even using laser therapy to help with arthritic issues. Just as you would with your pets at home regular vet check-ups are essential for older individuals.
Keepers may also spend more time with these animals making sure they are alright and managing. It can be a difficult time when animals get older as zoos want to make sure that they have a quality of life still. Sometimes hard decisions have to be made when it comes to an animal’s life. We would never want an animal to suffer and in these cases euthanasia may be the only course of action, especially with age related issues that generally will only get worse with time.
So who are our seniors at Wingham?
Scottish Wild Cats – Mindy (11 years) & Bindy (12 years)
These older sisters can be a bit grumpy and definitely like to cat nap. You can usually find them asleep in either their house or on their hammock which their keeper, Charlotte made for them. Their favourite food is chicken and their favourite keeper is Sarah. As these girls are not the friendliest and don’t like to be stroked, the carnivore keepers have scale trained them so that we can keep an eye on their weight. In the wild a Scottish Wild Cat would have an average lifespan of 10-12 years and in captivity around 15 years, so our girls should have a good few years left in them yet!
European Wolves – Dakota (10 years) & Aria (10 years)
Our second pair of elderly sisters are our wolf females. Aria has been the lowest ranking member of the pack since Dakota gave birth to the four pups back in April 2017.
Aria is fairly easy to tell apart because her ears are folded over. This is due to having haematomas in both her ears last year which the vet had to treat. She has definitely slowed down in recent months but still likes to play with her nephew Mowgli early in the mornings.
Dakota on the other hand is our dominant female and has been since she arrived with us in January 2013. She is full of attitude and definitely lets me know she doesn’t like me as she will bark and growl at me in the afternoons whenever I stop to say hello. I think she remembers it was me who gave her pups their microchips and vaccinations.
In the wild these wolves would have an average lifespan of 7 years. According to ZIMS (Zoological Information Management Software) our two girls are now the oldest European Grey Wolves in the UK, but they’ve still got plenty of life in them. A female named Misha was 17 years old when she passed away this year at Paradise Wildlife Park.
Cusimanse – Lomie (nearly 12 years)
Lomie arrived with us in February this year from Drusillas. Being one of the eldest cusimanse in Europe she’s an old girl with a few tricks up her sleeve. She knows exactly how to manipulate the group to her advantage and rarely comes into conflict with any of the other girls.
She does however have quite bad teeth and so she is now fed her chicks separately from the other cusimanse so that she can take her time without the others stealing her meat. She does have a nasty temper during her check-ups. Even though her teeth are pretty blunt she would still give us a nasty bite if the keepers didn’t wear thick welding gloves when handling her.
Cusimanse have a lifespan in captivity of around 10 years old, but Lomie still has copious amounts of life in her.
Come and visit all of our golden oldies soon!