November 7, 2013
Cookie, the Brookfield Zoo's resident 80-year-old cockatoo, was in fine form Tuesday morning.
The last remaining member of the west suburban zoo's original animal collection when it opened in 1934, he squawked with excitement — a piercing, guttural cry better suited to Australian woodlands — when a couple of strangers, a reporter and photographer, visited the Bird and Reptile House office where he now spends his days.
He banged his head, more likely a gesture of crankiness or anger than of heavy metal fandom, his handler said. He raised up, puffed out his still-vibrant pink chest and pushed his crown feathers to their full height, an impressive display for any female cockatoos in the vicinity.
On the wall was a notecard that the bird, officially a Major Mitchell's cockatoo, had just received from a fan in Thailand. "I'm really glad to know you. You are such a long-lived and happy cockatoo," it said. "I wish you more more happiness."
But while Cookie appeared the picture of avian health, zoo staffers know that their prized bird battles many of the ailments that beset humans of a similar age: osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, cataracts and fading eyesight. He has been off exhibit since 2009, with a sign in the bird house's public area saying, "Happy Retirement Cookie."
I got to wondering about Chicagoland's elderly animal population when the Shedd Aquarium sent out a news release this summer celebrating Granddad, its 80-plus-year-old Australian lungfish, at the institution since its infancy and, the Shedd said, the oldest living fish at any aquarium in the world.
Which, I wondered, are Chicago's other oldest animals? And why should the newborns get all the publicity?
What I learned is that there are different ways to define old — raw years vs. relative to species, for instance — and that, as veterinary practices improve, zoos and aquariums are increasingly dealing with aging populations.
"Zoological or aquarium medicine is notoriously heavy on geriatrics because these animals live with us much, much longer than we generally expect them to live in the wild," said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, the Shedd Aquarium's vice president for animal health. "There are a lot of animals that would never survive this long in the great wild because they'd become someone else's meal" as their health diminished and reflexes slowed.
William Zeigler, Brookfield's senior vice president of collections and animal care, attributed much of the institutions' success to the transfer of practices and even equipment from the care of domestic animals and humans over to a zoo's animal population.
For instance: Brookfield's Maggie, 52, the oldest orangutan in a North American zoo, fought through a thyroid problem seven or eight years ago, taking the same medication humans do. In the course of treatment, she lost a lot of weight, and her coarse hair softened.
"You're seeing animals live a lot longer," Zeigler said. "Right now, you're seeing gorillas in their 40s becoming commonplace. You didn't see that 30 years ago."
But in the course of collecting information for this story, I also was reminded of a truth about aged animals. Just like grandma and grandpa, their continued presence cannot be taken for granted.
Keo, 55, who arrived at Lincoln Park Zoo in 1959 and was the oldest living male chimpanzee in a North American zoo, had to be euthanized in late September due to advanced cardiac disease and a greatly diminished quality of life.
And just last week, Rio, a 21-year-old river otter the Shedd had initially included when I asked for a list of long-lived animals there, had to be put down, as well.
The first time I talked to Van Bonn, Rio was fine. Monday, just a couple of weeks later, the animal was gone.
"A good example, huh?" he said. "We can't keep them around forever. The last time you and I talked she was pretty stable. But as is often the case, stable means compensating for things. She since then, really went downhill pretty rapidly," showing difficulty navigating stairs, an indicator of advancing arthritis, and repeatedly going for water, which often signifies kidney failure.
"To us it was pretty obvious that this was her time," Van Bonn said.
But making such a decision as a professional doesn't negate the emotions. "There were a lot of tears here last week," he said. "We've got folks who are still grieving."
Dave Bernier, Lincoln Park Zoo's general curator, said losing Keo was similarly hard, but "whenever we bring an animal in, we're committed to the animal for its entire life. ... Our last greatest responsibility to the animal is sometimes to make that decision based upon the quality of life."
And the lessons of "The Lion King" about the circle of life continue to apply as well.
Brookfield this week welcomed a baby gorilla. And Van Bonn took time off to help his wife deliver their first child.
Chicago's oldest animals
Cookie (Major Mitchell's cockatoo, age 80): Believed to be the oldest of his species in professional care, Cookie came to Brookfield when it opened in 1934, a 1-year-old sent from an Australian zoo. Off exhibit since 2009, he lives in a keepers' office, beneath a staff binder marked "Egg Logs." At the Brookfield Zoo, 8400 31st St., Brookfield; 708-688-8000 or czs.org
Granddad (Australian lungfish, age 80): Granddad might be older than 80. He arrived full-sized at the Shedd in 1933, three years after the aquarium opened. Even without additional years, he is the oldest living fish in any public aquarium, Shedd staffers say. At the Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive; 312-939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org
Maggie (Bornean orangutan, age 52): Maggie arrived at Brookfield in 1995 and is the oldest of her species at an accredited North American zoo. She still scampers up to her loft like perch to sleep. And Tuesday, she had the company of the young white-cheeked gibbon Thani as keepers tossed grapes to them. At the Brookfield Zoo.
Vicky (chimpanzee, age 50): The oldest animal at the Lincoln Park Zoo, she is well past the median life expectancy for female chimps (38.7 years). She lives with daughter Kibali, who, at 33, is no spring chicken. At the Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Drive; 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org
Maggie (dwarf crocodile, age 47): Maggie is a very popular name, apparently, for older animals. The reptile Maggie is the second-oldest animal at the Lincoln Park Zoo, but 47 is just her minimum age, calculated from when she began living in zoos, in 1966. Maggie gave birth in her 40s, in 2007. Fun fact about crocodile management: She is kept well fed enough that she does not eat the 400 tilapia that share her enclosure. At the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Ramar (Western lowland gorilla, age 45): The third oldest western lowlands male in North American care, Ramar has fathered three since arriving at the Brookfield Zoo in 1998. He was off display for a time this week as the zoo welcomed a baby female gorilla sired by JoJo, who moved to Brookfield from Lincoln Park in 2012 for breeding purposes. At the Brookfield Zoo.
Mauyak (beluga whale, age 32): Belugas in the wild live 10 to 25 years. Mauyak, who arrived at the Shedd in 1997 from Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., has raised three calves at Shedd — including the Shedd's youngest beluga, Kimalu, born last year. Mauyak is both the oldest and the smallest adult at the aquarium, identified by gray streaks on her sides. At the Shedd Aquarium.
Aussie (polar bear, age 28): Since arriving at age 1 from an Australian zoo, Aussie has sired five. Tuesday he buried his face in a pile of lettuce and peanut butter and swam in his pool, a remarkably graceful display for a 930-pound animal. Only in his exit from the pool, navigated a little gingerly in his hindquarters, could you see his age. At the Brookfield Zoo.
Maku (Eastern black rhinoceros, age 27): Almost 10 years beyond the median black rhino life expectancy, Maku, 27, was the sire (with 8-year-old Kapuki) of the zoo's headline grabbing new black rhino, King. What else can you say about a rhinoceros? "He is also known for his love of a good wallow," zoo staff said. At the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Lurch and Bruno (cinerous vultures, ages 25 and 26): The unfortunately named Lurch (female) and Bruno (male) have been a couple for 23 years; cinerous vultures mate for life. Their chick Sophia, born in June, is already as big as her parents. At the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Anya (Amur leopard, age 23): The oldest of her species at a North American zoo, she remains active despite some infirmities and, her handlers say, is quite vocal. At the Brookfield Zoo.
Myra (African lion, age 17): Seventeen is just past the species median life expectancy of 16.8 years, but Myra has more than a 15-year tenure at Lincoln Park and has had three cubs. Not to stereotype the aged, but, zoo staffers say, "her favorite activity is napping in the northwest corner of her exhibit." At the Lincoln Park Zoo.
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