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Caring for our Aging Animals – Geriatric and End of Life Care at the Zoo

May 05, 2017

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Today our Zoo family is deeply saddened as we say a respectful goodbye to Gahiji, our geriatric South African cheetah who was living in hospice care. Nearly 12 years old, Gahiji was the Zoo’s last cheetah. His attentive caregivers provided him daily support and medication to help ease discomforts from age-related ailments as he reached what is old age for cheetahs that have an average life expectancy of 10 to 12 years.

Gahiji came to live at Lowry Park Zoo in 2007 from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Zoo, as a recommendation by the AZA Cheetah SSP Program to hold male cheetahs in support of this species conservation efforts in North America. While here he helped teach a countless number of visitors about his species, which is the fastest land animal and is listed by IUCN as vulnerable due to human conflict and loss of habitat.

End of life decisions for Zoo animals are extremely difficult, because we care so much about each animal here. Just like providing proper care for pets that eventually face health challenges, on occasion the Zoo’s animal care team must make the difficult decision to euthanize an animal whose quality of life is severely diminished. Euthanasia is considered when caretakers feel the animal no longer meets the Zoo’s quality of life parameters. These decisions are extensively assessed and involve everyone who takes care of the individual animal. All possible treatment options are discussed and considered. If caretakers and veterinarians agree they can no longer provide the animal with a good quality of life, the next step is humane euthanasia.

Accredited zoos and aquariums across the country are continually evaluating and advancing animal care and veterinary practices to help ensure our animals in our care experience the best quality of life. As a result, animals living in zoos are living longer than ever before, and in many cases, will outlive their counterparts in nature.  

In the wild, older animals often become slower. This leads to them becoming the target of predators and less effective at securing food. Animals in the care of accredited zoos are free from these challenges, and can live longer. We join other zoos in continually advancing the science of animal care to help manage age-related ailments and ensure that our animals live comfortably.

“Our staff works with these animals everyday and develops a very strong bond with them which makes it hard to arrive at such a difficult decision,” said Dr. Ray Ball, director of medical sciences, “But we have the utmost respect for these animals and don’t want to prolong their lives for our sake if they are no longer living a healthy and fulfilling life.”

While caring for older animals can be challenging, our Zoo team is proud to create a safe and welcoming home for every animal here. We will continue to seek treatments and unique training techniques that allow even our oldest animals to live a long and comfortable life.

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Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is operated by the Lowry Park Zoological Society, an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization committed to excellence in education, conservation and research. The Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and is featured among the “Top 25 Zoos in the U.S” by TripAdvisor (2015) and “10 Best Zoos in the U.S.” by Trekaroo (2015). The Zoo is located at 1101 W. Sligh Avenue in Tampa, one mile west of I-275 (exit 48) and is open seven days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 

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