Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Saying Goodbye

Every animal’s story includes a final chapter. That’s one of the hardest parts of Zoo life.

By Phyllis McIntosh

For 13 years, a Sumatran tiger named Rokan reigned supreme in the Great Cats exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. He famously contributed to the conservation of his critically endangered subspecies by siring ten surviving cubs, including seven with his longtime mate, Soyono.

But at the advanced age of almost 20, Rokan was increasingly crippled by arthritis and spondylosis, a fusing of the spinal column. When medications could no longer keep him comfortable and he could not safely venture into the outdoor exhibit area, Zoo staff decided, sadly, that it was time to say goodbye. On May 28, 2010, Rokan’s circle of life was complete.

Difficult Decisions

Andean bear Bandit

When she died in 2010, Bandit, an Andean bear, was the second-oldest Andean bear in captivity in North America. (J'nie Woosley /NZP)

Death of a beloved Zoo animal is difficult for staff and visitors alike. It is especially wrenching for keepers who worked with that animal daily, sometimes for its entire life. Veterinarians and keepers do all they can to keep an animal functioning and comfortable in its declining days. When in the best interest of the animal they can do no more, the decision to euthanize is made with careful deliberation by a chain of command that reaches to the highest levels.

Thanks to superior care and nutrition, zoo animals enjoy long lives. In the wild, Rokan would have been old at 15. Bandit, an Andean bear euthanized recently at 33, lived a decade longer than even most captive members of her species. Like humans, elderly animals develop geriatric diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and arthritis.

Keepers usually are first to detect a change: a monkey off its feed, a snake that’s not shedding, a bird that stops preening, a cat that has trouble getting up. The curator, or supervisor for that area of the Zoo, helps determine if the problem is a management or health-related issue. A curator who suspects a health concern will request a veterinary examination. It can happen either at the animal’s enclosure or at the veterinary hospital, depending on the nature of the illness. When brought to the hospital, patients receive a physical exam and other diagnostic tests, including blood work, x-rays, and ultrasound, depending on the suspected disease.

Once the vets have made a diagnosis, they discuss the prognosis and treatment options with the curator, and together they determine the best treatment plan for each animal. During treatment, veterinarians closely monitor the animal’s condition and quality of life through frequent visual assessments and updates with the keepers and curator. Most of the diseases diagnosed at the veterinary hospital are treatable, and the animals are back to their normal selves within a few weeks. Yet some diseases, especially in older animals, are not correctable. In these cases, veterinarians and curators provide medication and management techniques to help keep the animal comfortable for as long as possible.


Jomu, a cheetah who lived at the Cheetah Consrevation Station, had chronic kidney failure. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Working with zoo animals poses an extra challenge for veterinarians. For example, kidney disease is not uncommon in domestic cats, and it can also be seen in exotic cats like the cheetah. But while a pet cat may be able to receive fluids under its skin twice a week to treat its kidney disease, a cheetah will not stand for fluid administration. “We could anesthetize the animal and give fluids intravenously, which may help to some degree, but anesthesia itself can compromise the kidneys,” says associate veterinarian Katharine Hope. “It’s a balancing act to try to treat both the disease and the patient.”

“With modern technology, we can almost force any animal to stay alive,” says Craig Saffoe, interim curator of great cats and Andean bears. “But at what point do you know in your heart that you’re keeping them alive for yourself instead of for the best interest of the animal? It’s a tough call, probably the toughest thing about working with animals.” To help make this call, veterinarians and curators throughout the Zoo rely on a general checklist—Is the animal eating? Is it maintaining body weight? Can it move around comfortably?—to objectively assess quality of life.

In the end, it’s a team decision by the curator, vets, and Don Moore, the associate director for animal care sciences, often in consultation with the pathologist or Zoo nutritionist. If the animal in question is a large charismatic vertebrate, the process involves more people, including the Zoo director and sometimes even the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Moore signs off on every creature euthanized at the Zoo. There are, he says, ghosts in every enclosure. “We care deeply about every single animal. When death doesn’t get to you anymore, it’s time to retire.”

Human Emotions

When the decision is made to euthanize a Zoo animal, the procedure is similar to that used for a family pet. The vets first anesthetize the animal, then intravenously administer the euthanizing solution, an overdose of another anesthetic, which stops the heart.

“Our vets are extremely compassionate,” says Saffoe. “They will stand back and get the euthanasia solution ready out of our sight. They sedate the animal and then turn their backs and let us have our private moments, touch the animal if we want, and decide when we’re ready.”

A death is announced to the media and the public if the animal was a high-profile resident of the Zoo, especially if it was an endangered species, such as a tiger, cheetah, elephant, or sloth bear. Other notable animals—a Komodo dragon that was the first of its species to hatch in captivity at the National Zoo, perhaps, or a bird that sired the first chicks of its kind to be reintroduced in the wild—may also rate an obituary.

Though they get less attention, the deaths of not-so-famous animals tug just as hard at the heartstrings of personnel who work with them. Some keepers have spent 15 or 20 years working with the same tamarins or cranes and know these animals personally and as individuals. Bird House biologist Sara Hallager, who cares for kori bustards, the world’s largest flying birds, has written movingly of her grief at losing Jane, a kori bustard she worked with for 18 years. “Some people think that there can’t be a strong emotional bond between a person and a bird,” she wrote. “I can tell you for certain that is false. For me and the other zookeepers that took care of Jane for so long, losing Jane was like losing a friend.”

Small mammal curator Bob King maintains that his keepers become even more bonded with their small charges through hand-feeding and touching as part of their training. “They have a physical connection that you’re not going to have with larger, more dangerous animals,” he says.

Reptile and invertebrate staffs, on the other hand, say they remain more detached, feeling disappointment over the death of a good exhibit specimen or a genetically valuable animal rather than grieving for a friend. “We try to avoid personalizing our animals,” says Jim Murphy, curator of reptiles and amphibians. “We are scientists who are doing what we hope is important work with these endangered species. We respect them, we find them fascinating, we’ve based our entire careers on working with them. We don’t memorialize them.”


Octavius, a giant Pacific octopus at the Invertebrate Exhibit. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Invertebrate keeper Tamie DeWitt acknowledges, however, that she does feel a special bond with the giant Pacific octopus, an intelligent creature with an individual personality and the only member of the invertebrate collection that rates a name. (It’s called Octavius.) And, she says, the whole staff will certainly miss the spiny lobster, a 20-year fixture in the Invertebrate Exhibit, when it finally succumbs.

While the slow decline of elderly animals is the most common scenario, sudden death can be equally tough because it forces keepers to go through a lot of emotions very quickly. Especially heartbreaking are the very young animals, such as the threeday- old lion cub that died of pneumonia in 2010 after aspirating a tiny fragment of hay bedding. “When something happens that causes an animal to die at a young age, even if you’ve only taken care of that animal for hours, I think there’s more of a feeling of guilt and fault,” comments Don Moore. “But as professionals, if we’re going to take the risk of breeding animals, then we risk losing some of those offspring.”

A Time to Grieve

Whatever the circumstances, keepers, curators, and veterinary staff give one another time to grieve. They share tears and laughter as they reminisce about their friend. The keeper who was closest to the animal may take a day off to be alone with his or her thoughts. Don Moore and the curators informally check in to make sure no one is too distracted to follow proper procedures in working with the other animals.

Aside from elephants, whose grief rituals are well documented, we understand little about how animals react to the illness and death of one of their own. Nevertheless, keepers take pains to ease any possible distress. Survivors receive treats and enrichment and are watched for changes in eating or behavior that could signal depression. Staff also try to help animals comprehend what has happened. After Rokan died, his mate Soyono was allowed to view and sniff his body. She chuffed at him as she always did and seemed puzzled that he didn’t respond, but after that she no longer called to him.

Primate keepers work closely with individual monkeys and apes, who also have long-term relationships with members of their social group. Whenever possible, keepers allow the group to view a member that has died. When Haloko, an elderly female gorilla, was euthanized in March, the group was given time to view her body.

Haloko, a western lowland gorilla

Haloko, a western lowland gorilla, lived at the Zoo for more than 20 years. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

The group had been shifted outdoors well before the procedure took place. Upon reentering the building, reports curator Lisa Stevens, the group was very quiet and cautious. “It was around feeding time,” she says, “and it’s normal for them to be excited, with lots of belch vocalizations and sometimes squabbling. Mandara [another female] at one point started to display, but as she stood up, she seemed to think better of it and sat back down. For several days, the silverback, Baraka, chose to remain away from where his group was resting, looking over into the enclosure where Haloko had spent her last days. It is difficult to fully understand the repercussions of this loss on the group, but we always try to lessen the impact with our management.”

Because many birds and mammals do not thrive solo, curators try to find replacements for a dead mate as soon as possible. If none is available, mirrors can sometimes comfort a solitary bird. For a small primate, having another kind of tamarin or marmoset, even a different species such as a squirrel, in the same exhibit can help.

A Sort of Afterlife

While death is difficult, the comforting news is that many Zoo animals do live on, not just in memory, but also in the information and parts of themselves they leave behind. Pathologists perform a necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy) on every animal that dies at the Zoo. Usually, the necropsy confirms the vets’ original diagnosis and reassures staff that they made the right decision to euthanize when they did.

Lusaka, a lion

Lusaka (Ann Batdorf/NZP)

But sometimes a necropsy reveals surprising and valuable information. Elderly lioness Lusaka was being treated for cancer when she suddenly worsened and was euthanized in January 2010. The necropsy revealed that an occluded bile duct had caused her decline. The oral chemotherapy she received was working; her tumor had not recurred.

More important, necropsies help the species as a whole, says the Zoo’s chief pathologist Tim Walsh. “We satisfy requests for research materials from inside the Zoo and from many other institutions,” he notes. “We also look for things that, while they may not have been the cause of death, may still be significant for the health of other animals. So the necropsy often is not just for that animal. It’s to add to our body of knowledge.”

Before sending the animal’s remains to a licensed facility outside the Zoo for incineration, the pathologists may also save certain bones or pieces of a pelt for educational purposes. Occasionally, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History asks for an entire carcass to broaden its collection of a particular species.

Pelts usually are sent to a tannery. Bones go to a Smithsonian facility in Suitland, Maryland, where a colony of tiny dermestid beetles delicately strips away every fragment of flesh. The pelts and bones then join the Zoo’s collection of hands-on objects that volunteers and staff use to educate visitors. In death, the animal continues to thrill children— and adults—who are able to feel a cheetah’s fur or examine a snake’s skeleton.

“People today are farther removed from the circle of life,” concludes Don Moore. “It’s great to announce Zoo births. That makes everybody feel good. But animals die, too. We’re trying to be transparent enough that we reconnect people with an appreciation for all animals and for the circle of life.”


—Frequent contributor PHYLLIS MCINTOSH is a freelance writer and veteran Zoo volunteer.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(4) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.