Full Circle Of Life Played Out At Zoos
Wednesday 22nd August 2007

22/08/2007

Tenzin (after the famous Nepalese Mountain climber Tenzin Norgay) and Jishnu (meaning bright or triumphant)
Photo credit: Anders Alexander

‘Indah' Binturong cub. Photo: Helen Pantenburg.

Taronga and Western Plains Zoos' animals hold a very special place in many people's minds. Numerous childhood memories focus on visiting our Zoos and being enriched by the animal residents, their individual personalities and character traits.  This is why news of a death causes widespread sadness.

Taronga and Western Plains Zoos care for more than 4000 animals daily including many endangered and threatened species. We are world-renowned for our modern facilities and high standard of care and take pride in delivering the best veterinary, husbandry and holistic treatment available.

With international advancements in veterinary expertise many of our animals are living well into their twilight years reaching ages that many of their wild cousins would not come close to. Despite this, as in the wild, Zoos are not immune to death; it is sadly an inevitable and natural part of Zoo life, which affects many of our staff, visitors and supporters.

To gain a perspective, a study into incidents that occurred at Taronga and Western Plains Zoos over five years established that animal management staff undertake an average of 800,000 animal-related activities every year.

The study identified that animals died as a result of human interaction or error in .0002% of cases.

By comparison, 'adverse events' in Australian hospitals affect 16.6% of patients admitted, with fatal results in 4.9% of cases.

So patients are 24,500 times more likely to die as a result of human error in an Australian hospital than animals in the care Taronga and Western Plains Zoo.

Just as we celebrate a new birth at the Zoos, we also mourn the loss of our beloved animals. This winter has been particularly harsh for the Zoos as the colder months claimed some of our elderly residents which had been under veterinary care for some time.

An African Elephant and Orang-utan passed away this winter as well as ‘Kua', a four-year-old Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, which died while receiving care for an intestinal blockage.

The loss of ‘Kua' was unexpected and tragic, but upon initial detection that she was unwell the rhinoceros received 24 hour care with her dedicated keepers and veterinary staff sleeping by her side during the 13 day struggle to save her life.

Kua's death was doubly the cause for sadness when she was discovered to have been pregnant, which was an unexpected situation because according to world zoo knowledge, she was not expected to be ready to breed.

With wild animals, particularly those as large as Kua, there are very few options available to veterinarians.  Operations are extremely risky and there is no recorded instance in the world of an Rhinoceros surviving surgery.

At Western Plains Zoo, the much-loved ‘Cheri', an African Elephant was an aged animal and she had suffered from arthritis for some time. She was under veterinary treatment for several days and died in June from a gastro-intestinal condition.

Taronga Zoo also last year lost a male Salt-water Crocodile due to a lung infection. Such fungal infections are common as bacterial infections and fungi are always present in the environment.

This death typifies another of the challenges in caring for animals, because domestic and wild creatures often conceal an illness to avoid predators' attention or do not present noticeable symptoms.

In the crocodile's case, its condition would not have been evident as these animals spend a large amount of time under the water and its behaviour gave no indication of a problem.  Although there had been temporary problems with the crocodile exhibit's water heater, a permanently heated indoor area was available to the Crocodile and its female companion, which has suffered no health problems. Water temperature was not found to be a factor in the male's death.

In the last few years there were three other crocodile deaths at Taronga, one was a Freshwater Crocodile which was found dead four days after hatching. This is not uncommon in a species where for every 1000 animals hatched, only 18 survive to maturity. There was no apparent reason for the death.

A juvenile Saltwater Crocodile may have died as a result of an underlying thyroid problem contributing to a skin condition and gut atrophy which would have prevented proper digestion. Another Saltwater Crocodile, an adult male, died in August 2005.  Despite extensive examination, there was no clear reason for the death found in the gross post mortem or the microscopic examination. The cause of death could not be determined.

Compounding the impacts of these deaths, a series of media articles questioned the management and standard of care given to the animals. As with all deaths they were routinely reported to the appropriate authorities.

Subsequently, an independent inquiry by the RSPCA has since completely cleared the Zoos and confirmed that they follow best practice standards and at no time was animal care compromised.

This was welcome news to our dedicated keepers and veterinarians, who were deeply offended by any suggestion they would ever compromise on animal care.

As confronting as it often is, all living things animals, including those in the care of zoos, die. Just as in the wild, the full circle of life is played out in zoos however in general zoo animals live longer than their wild counterparts due to the dedication of their carers, round the clock medical treatment, high quality, specialised diets and they do not suffer the same pressures from disease, predators and loss of habitat.

During these challenging times it is also important to focus on the remarkable work Taronga and Western Plains are involved in on a daily basis on behalf of wildlife.

Recent successes at the Zoos include the birth of twin Red Panda cubs and a female Binturong, which is highly endangered in parts of its range due to habitat destruction and poaching; the rehabilitation of 1500 native animals annually through the Zoos' wildlife clinics  ultimately giving them a second chance at life and advancements in Rhinoceros breeding procedures at Western Plains Zoo.

Most recently, Zoo Veterinarian Benn Bryant  travelled to Sumatra to provide expert veterinary services to a program caring for remaining Sumatran Rhinoceros, of which fewer than 300 remain on Earth.

Because of the great responsibility for these remarkable creatures the daily celebrate life and accept death knowing that our standard of care exceeds any reasonable expectation.

For more information contact Media Relations:

Ph: +61 2 9978 4606
Fax: +61 2 9978 4511
Email: tzpr@zoo.nsw.gov.au