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Animal Old Folks

For the National Zoo's esteemed senior citizens, only the very best in geriatric medical care will do

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Hsing-hsing, the giant panda at the National Zoological Park, moves slowly these days, and sometimes slumps on the floor with all four legs splayed. He's going on 29, which is extremely old for a panda, and he has kidney trouble and bad arthritis in the spine and elbow.

He gets a diet of bamboo, and a gruel of cottage cheese, honey, rice and vitamin supplements. But when he hurts, or when he just feels stiff and lame, he doesn't eat, so the Zoo vets give him anti-inflammatory carprofen several times a day.

Now, it is not easy to give a pill to a panda. You don't just go into the cage and pry open his jaws and push it down. He's wild, and however cuddly he looks, he's not to be mistaken for your golden retriever.

"He used to take it in a sweet potato," says Robert Hoage, the Zoo's public affairs chief, "but then he decided that he was tired of sweet potatoes. But one day some keepers were having lunch near his cage and somebody had a blueberry muffin. He sniffed it out and they gave him a nibble. He loved it. So we put the pill in a blueberry muffin." The keepers soon discovered, however, that it couldn't be just any blueberry muffin. Hsing-Hsing will only eat Starbucks' blueberry muffins.

"Starbucks is generously donating the muffins," Hoage adds. Nothing is too good for Hsing-Hsing. He is so famous that he gets mail and even phone calls from people all over the world who are concerned about his health. In the corridor by his enclosure are posters and pictures from children. One reads: "Dear Hsing-Hsing, we read in the newspaper that you are sick. We hope you are feeling better.... King School."

In the wild, pandas rarely live 20 years, so it is not exactly a surprise if this furry celebrity doesn't always eat his meals on schedule. Here it was 2 p.m. and he was just getting to his 11 a.m. gruel. All this information goes into the Zoo's files.

"We've done 27 years of research on giant pandas," Hoage tells me. "As one of the world's preeminent research zoos, we are a leader in these studies. They provide a baseline for future research. It's exciting to know that we're helping to write the first chapter on zoo animal geriatric medicine."

"Geriatric" is the key word here. Since zoos tend to preserve animal life far beyond what would be expected in the wild, they see a lot of elderly animals. Here's Nancy, a 45-year-old elephant, peering expectantly into the doorway of her giant stall. She holds up her left front foot because she has a dangerous bone infection, osteomyelitis, in one of her toes, that could work its way up her leg. Three times a week she gets antibiotics intravenously, directed at the infected tissue with the aid of a specially designed elephant tourniquet, one of only two in the country. It's not exactly a hot market item. But twice a day Marie Galloway, the head elephant caretaker, flushes out the wound and swabs it. Hoage and I get to watch inside the stall.

First, Galloway takes a blood sample from the huge gray ear. Then she rolls in a large iron stool like the ones you see in the circus, and Nancy immediately puts her sore foot up on it. "She's anxious to get started," Galloway says. "We think it relieves the pain some."

Nancy stands there patiently. "She's a good girl," says Galloway. The elephant has been trained for such treatments. For one thing, elephants love order, and though she is the matriarch among the Zoo's elephants, Nancy recognizes a superior hierarchy of keepers and vets, and accepts their dominance. For another, she gets a steady rain of peanut-size biscuits, which she snuffles up skillfully.

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