Monday, July 11, 2016

Denver Zoo’s Aging Animals Get Hospice-like Care in Their Twilight Years.

By Elizabeth Hernandez
Denver Post

"Denver Zoo has about 20 animals beginning to decline with age, ranging from 52-year-old elephant to 18-year-old otter.

The circle of life in unfolding high above the foliage-strewn floors of a Denver Zoo primate exhibit. Mama gorilla Tinga balances on a wooden plank, patting 4-month-old Whimsie's bottom. In a hammock a few feet away, 39-year-old western lowland gorilla Bassa is slowly dying of uterine cancer.

Bassa is one of the zoo's venerable seniors whose life - while good and long, zoo staff said - is nearing its final stages.

"Don't tell the other gorillas, but she is my favorite," said animal keeper Jody Hodges. Hodges has cared for Bassa since the gorilla came to the zoo 20 years ago. Now, Hodges and the other keepers and vets are doing what they can to make Bassa as comfortable as possible and monitor her quality of life so she doesn't suffer.

It's only human to try to mitigate end-of-life pains when discomforts arise in hospice care - a humanity the Denver Zoo also extends to its animals. The zoo goes to great lengths to keep its aging inhabitants content, whether that means performing reiki energy healing on a geriatric Komodo dragon or administering rounds of acupuncture to an arthritic camel.

The Denver Zoo has about 20 animals whose health is beginning to decline with age, ranging from 52-year-old Dolly the elephant to 18-year-old Otto the otter to an 8-year-old sheep name Mona. According to the zoo, most of the animals have exceeded their life expectancy.

"We take great care of them throughout their lives," said Brian Aucone, senior vice president for animal care and conservation at the zoo. "Their longevity is a credit to the great care we give."

Bassa, a 39-year-old female gorilla, rests in her enclosure at the Gorilla exhibit at the Denver Zoo on June 29, 2016. Bassa has been diagnosed with uterine cancer and the zoo has put her on hospice. Zoo officials say the treatment for her cancer has been too hard on her and has taken away from her quality of life. They don't know how long she will live but hopes she continues to eat and socialize with her gorilla family.

Bassa had irregular bleeding in her reproductive tract at the end of 2014. In the spring of 2015, she underwent a uterine biopsy that showed potentially pre-cancerous cells. She was placed on a high dose of hormone therapy that had her keepers crossing their fingers for good results, but a second screening at the beginning of 2016 revealed a uterine mass. The veterinarians tried to remove as much of it as they could and put Bassa on a second round of hormone therapy, which made her tired and depressed.

"We put humans through almost anything when they're sick to save them until the brink of death," said Gwen Jankowski, associate vet and technician supervisor at the zoo. "But we manage animals differently. We try to maintain a quality of life for them."

Hodges cracks a smile while she describes Bassa, remembering a time when the gorilla was still new to the zoo and awed everyone with her aunt abilities. When a new primate mom was nervous about motherhood and placed her baby on the floor, Bassa would pick up the crying gorilla, comfort it and hand it back to its mother.

Bassa, a 39-year-old female gorilla, carries tree branches in her enclosure at the Gorilla exhibit at the Denver Zoo on June 29, 2016.

"She's a real smart girl, but she's real goofy," she said. "She beats her chest and claps her hands and is playful and knows her role."

Now, Bassa is living out her days eating greens, resting and spending time with her five-gorilla social group. She has anywhere from a few months to a few years left to live.

Bassa is stoic. She has to be, or the other gorillas can pick up on her weakness and start pushing her around. Hodges said it's already starting to happen. One a recent afternoon, Tinga kicked Bassa off the tall, wooden platform she was lounging on.

Bassa's unflappable nature makes it difficult for keepers and vets to gauge how much pain she's in. To monitor her health and take some personal toll out of judging Bassa's suffering, her keepers write quality-of-life sheets that track how much she's eating, socializing and behaving like her goofy self.

In between times of tending to Bassa, Hodges grieves.

Twenty years of friendship makes watching a loved one enter hospice care heartbreaking, even when that sidekick is a 243-pound primate.

After a long day, Hodges said she has felt the same kind of compassion fatigue that nurses taking care of dying patients can feel. The close bond among keepers and vets makes her heavy heart lighter. Sometimes she can't help but cry.

"I just let what emotions happen naturally happen," she said. "Some of the other keepers are more tough, but this works best for me."

The zoo provides counseling for keepers who are having a hard time coping with animal deaths.

"They have full input on anything we do," Aucone said. "If that's a euthanasia case, we all talk about that and agree on that because they have best information and are closest to the animals. I think everybody would tell you they appreciate the ability to help make that decision." 

Aucone compares the zoo to a city with 4,300 citizens getting care each day.

"In the animal world, it's not different," he said. "People are going to pass. It's just our community of animals. It's not a case where the bulk of our collection are nearing the end of their life, but I could see how when you have a few deaths in a row, people become concerned."

The zoo builds and adapts exhibits to meet their elder citizens' needs, adding steps in the predator ridge exhibit so the lions, hyenas and wild dogs have easier mobility. They can alter diets for aging bodies and are open to alternative medicines like essential oils, too.

"It's across the board," Aucone said. "We consider the full life of the species."

Hodges has to make sure her emotional attachment to Bassa doesn't get in the way of her job. She uses a scale, one through five, to audit the animal's daily behavior, and that information is graphed to show a trend over time. Without the hard data, the process could too easily become clouded by remorse.

"I've lost a lot of animals in my career, and it doesn't get easier," Hodges said. "I like to think Bassa loves me as much as I love her."'

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