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Idaho Falls, ID –Caring for nearly 300 animals on a daily basis is quite the labor of love for the staff and volunteers at the Idaho Falls Zoo. The adult large cats that consider the zoo their home are all considered elderly, under some form of special medical care, or both.
An example of the challenges and the level of excellence in animal care at the zoo is the end-of-life issues experienced by the male African Lion, Dahoma. With an average lifespan in the wild of 10-14 years, Dahoma is nearing the end of his life at the ripe old age of 14.
Over the past two years, Dahoma has had two dental surgeries including a root canal and repair of a fractured tooth. Last summer, zoo staff noticed Dahoma appeared to be having trouble with his back legs. He was placed on a medical regimen of arthritis medication and regular observation. As his conditioned worsened, a CT scan and myleogram were performed of his entire spinal column. Dahoma was diagnosed with inoperable degenerative arthritis in his spine, two bulging discs in his lower back, and difficulties with his muscles and nerves communicating with his brain to tell his body how to operate properly. Dahoma is also experiencing other typical medical challenges that face most aging animals.
As zoo veterinarian Dr. Rhonda Aliah explains, “Excellent animal care and ensuring the welfare of every animal is what the zoo does. Every day we observe and evaluate Dahoma’s quality of life and always strive to provide the best care we possibly can, just as we do with every animal at the zoo.”
The zoo’s professional staff is trained for the challenges that caring for the elderly 375lb carnivore presents. “Dahoma is quite the picky eater and doesn’t enjoy taking medication,” says large carnivore and hoof stock keeper, Dallas LaDucer. Each day, LaDucer reevaluates Dahoma’s tastes and moods to ensure he ingests his medication. “The good news,” reports LaDucer, “is Dahoma is still in very high spirits and enjoys spending all his time with his mate Kimani and three cubs Hondo, Kamaria, and Ilanga.”
Unfortunately, Dahoma is not the only big cat at the zoo facing the effects of aging and/or requiring medical care.
Amur Tiger, “Basha” (female, age 15, average life span in the wild 10-15 years): Born in February 2003, visitors may think she is skinny, but just like people, tigers come in different sizes. Basha is a rather petite tiger who is quite a fussy eater and has some history with irritable bowel syndrome.
Snow Leopard, “Ketu” (male, age 7, average lifespan in the wild 10-12 years): Born in June 2010, Ketu should be in the prime of his life, but he was diagnosed with acute renal failure in July 2017. See Ketu’s story here. At this time, Ketu’s blood values are holding steady, and he is in very good spirits.
Snow Leopard, “Sundari” (female, age 12, average lifespan in the wild 10-12 years): Born in June 2005, Sundari is a wonderful mother who is in overall good health, we just help her watch her weight by monitoring her diet.
Africa Lion, “Kimani” (female, age 15, average lifespan in the wild 10-14 years): Kimani is unique in many ways. She is actually the oldest of our big cats and surprised the zoo world by being one of the oldest captive cats on record to give birth. She became a first-time mother last year with the birth of the zoo’s beloved Hondo in February 2017, and then only five months later she became a mother again to two girls, Kamaria and Ilanaga. For her advanced age, Kimani is in excellent health.
“The health, well-being, and overall welfare of the animals at your zoo is why we’re here,” says Zoo Director David Pennock. “Our goal is to always provide the very best life possible for each and every animal in our care.”
Several times each day, the animal care team feeds, cleans, and provides enriching experiences for all the animals, from the largest—the Bactrian camels, to the smallest—the zoo’s Madagascar hissing cockroaches. As anyone who cares for a pet or loved one can imagine, the daily demands are always performed with the utmost love and compassion, but can present some challenges. Once each week, the animal care team holds an animal welfare meeting where they review the care of each of the zoo species and discuss any special needs, observations, or other topics that relate to the animals’ well-being.
A challenge the zoo is currently facing is one seen in zoos across the nation. Animals in caring, accredited zoological institutions oftentimes live far longer than the average expectancy in the wild. Just like in humans, with aging comes health issues and care challenges. How do you combat the challenges? Good animal care is all about maintaining an active and aggressive veterinary program that is also required by organizations accredited under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Due to aging, the likelihood that the entire population of large cats at the zoo will need to be replaced in the next five years is very high. Working with AZA’s Species Survival Plans, programs that oversee the population of certain species of captive animals within accredited zoos and aquariums, the zoo will be assigned new large cats from zoos around North America based on the needs of the animals, genetic compatibility, and the exhibit design.
Recently, the male snow leopard cub, Tashi, went to live at the Chattanooga Zoo where he will hopefully one day father another generation of captive snow leopards. Similarly, in a year or two the African lion cubs will likely move to other accredited zoos in an effort to propagate more members of their vulnerable species.
“Your Idaho Falls Zoo exists for a very simple purpose,” says Pennock. “We are here for the animals and to educate our visitors on the importance of the role your zoo plays in saving species for future generations.”
Photo: Lion cub held by Dallas LaDucer, Zoo Keeper, Idaho Falls Zoo.
Media Note: For more information or to schedule an interview with zoo staff, contact Public Information Officer, Kerry Hammon.