Animal Old Folks

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

Smithsonian's National Zoo

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.

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.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.