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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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Despite painkillers, Nancy winces slightly as the swab probes into what amounts to her fingertip. Hoage and I don't see her wince, but Galloway and her assistant are very aware of it. It is this sort of sensitivity to animals — an alertness to their feelings, which provide clues to their health — that marks a good caretaker. Attention like this is expensive, of course, in money and hours. The cost is covered by federal money and various conservation funds.

Suddenly we hear a rattling roar, rather like a bookshelf falling down a staircase. The caretakers ignore it. "A little gas," explains Hoage. We then watch Mesou, a 44-year-old gorilla, taking the afternoon sun. With the air of preoccupation typical of apes, she is eating lettuce leaves she has found here and there on the grass. She moves slowly, stiffly, for she also has severe spinal arthritis and her fur is gray, not like the male silverback's fur, but gray all over. "See, she doesn't have the vibrant, energetic, confident movement that you see in younger animals," notes Hoage. Mesou is on food supplements and antibiotics for her chronic gingivitis, for which she goes to a dentist at least once a year. "If you're successful in keeping them alive, you're going to have geriatric problems," Hoage explains.

Some zoos keep ailing animals out of sight; others simply put up signs explaining the problem. A sign in the gorilla house: "Mandara has a bite wound on her left hip."

Sometimes, animals are kept out of sight for their own comfort. We visit Maureen and Esther (as in Esther Williams) in a special pool behind the big waterway. Both are 22, which is ancient for sea lions. In the wild they would rarely make it past 15. Esther is on steroids for muscle inflammation, and Maureen has a chronic infection resulting from a bite, requiring draining and antibiotics — expensive antibiotics that initially ran her treatment costs up to $1,000 a month. She's getting better, at last. Maureen was taken in as an orphan. She was found caught in a net with a broken jaw and had to have all her teeth removed. That's not a problem, however, for here at the Zoo sea lions swallow their fish whole. In the sea they would need teeth to catch the fish, but here they are hand-fed.

Like many animals and people, sea lions eat less as they grow old, become thinner and lose energy. Vitamin pills are slipped into their fish diet. Plus, they are trained constantly to cope with what might happen when they do get sick. Every time a sea lion slithers up on the rocks for a snack, the keeper presses a needleless syringe against its side to get it used to the feeling. Then if it does need an injection, it won't be too surprised. Now Maureen swims on her back in the shade, her eyes closed. She has just finished molting, a time when sea lions tend to have eye problems. As usual, the keepers notice everything, which is quite a feat since animals, of course, can't tell them what's wrong and instinctively hide any weakness lest some predator spot it and attack them. This sense of self-preservation is so profound that a mother rhino will cover the manure of a vulnerable baby rhino with her own spoor.

The list goes on. Sobat, a Komodo dragon, a creaking 14 years old, is on a diet to ease the arthritis in her knees. Taj the white tiger, 15, has progressive weakness in his hind legs, a gradual degeneration that is slowed somewhat with drugs and vitamins. He has also had several root canals. There's a hippo that's 47 years old, a crocodile that's 41, a 35-year-old flamingo and a tortoise born in 1965. Well, let's face it. None of us is getting any younger.

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