Kansas City Zoo's geriatric care includes arthritis therapy

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(KANSAS CITY, Mo., AP) — Treating elephant arthritis is among the challenges the Kansas City Zoo is facing as its animals live longer.

Captive breeding and conservation of animals in the wild has been a priority for years, meaning zoos have steered away from rejuvenating their collections with wild-born species, unless deemed vitally necessary, The Kansas City Star (http://bit.ly/1K9lQJz) reported.
Kirk Suedmeyer, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, estimated that some 25 percent of the zoo’s 1,100 animals are what would be considered geriatric.
Since late July, a 47-year-old African elephant named Lady has been receiving inflammation-reducing laser therapy to help soothe arthritis. The zoo also has trained its aged silverback gorilla, Radi, to present his chest for regular echocardiograms using a portable wand.
“They are living a lot longer in our care than they used to, so we have had to figure out strategies and methods to deal with an aging population,” said Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the body that certifies and represents 214 facilities in the U.S.
Because arthritis is such a persistent problem, Suedmeyer said the zoo is preparing for the future.
Since April, he has removed small samples of fat from five of the zoo’s animals — a crested mangabey, a scimitar oryx, an otter, a red-handed tamarin and a bobcat named B.B. — to extract stem cells. Suedmeyer said the idea is to use the stems cells as a preventive in advance of harmful disease. He believes the Kansas City zoo is the first or among the first in the nation to begin such a program.
As soon as early signs of arthritis begin to appear in a zoo animal, the animal’s frozen stem cells would be thawed and injected into the joints in the hopes that it would turn into cartilage tissue, lessen the disease before it worsens and perhaps reduce any need for drugs.
Arthritis is far from the only disease of aging affecting exotic animals. One chimpanzee had cataracts, Suedmeyer said.
“We had glaucoma in a kangaroo where the staff was able to condition her to accept drops in her eyes,” he said.
Suedmeyer said the most difficult part is making the decision to euthanize the animals when there are no longer good options.
“That’s the worst part of my job,” he said.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com.