The Working Zoo

I wrote this piece as a magazine feature for Usha Lee McFarling’s science communication class.

Jake is asleep in a mound of warm hay. Only the pads of his feet and his twitching tail are visible around the bulk of his body. Sunlight is warming the large rocks in his familiar-looking enclosure at Woodland Park Zoo – a rocky den that opens onto a grassy area with logs and other big cat toys, a few trees, and a landscaped perimeter that hides a concrete moat.

But this is an exhibit the public never sees. Jake – at 19 years old – is a retiree. This is his retirement community.

Advances in animal care and medicine have produced an unexpected side effect – an aging population of zoo animals living well past their life expectancies. Jake spent most of his life as part of a large lion pride at the zoo, but as he and his mate matured from “senior” to “elderly” Woodland Park zookeepers moved them into a quiet enclosure away from public view.

The public lion exhibit is on the other side of the large rock wall behind Jake, but you might never know it. On a recent tour of the zoo’s facilities, lead zookeeper Anne Nichols led me through a maze of pathways that takes you from the public face of the zoo to the “service area” where zookeepers work.

Behind a screen of vegetation, an entire complex worthy of Jurassic Park lies behind layers of heavy gates. Inside, staging areas for food preparation, medical exams, and access to animals’ indoor areas display the working zoo – the zoo that feeds and cares for animals for conservation, not public enjoyment.

At every zoo, a hidden population of elderly animals, large and small, lives in this behind-the-scenes area. As zoo animals live longer and longer in greater numbers, zoos face new challenges for meeting their needs both behind the scenes and in public exhibits. Anne Nichols, lead keeper for the tigers and Asian bears, tells me, “As animals reach geriatric ages in zoos, they are less flexible and have trouble navigating the existing moats you see in many exhibits.”

Zookeepers for the lions at Woodland Park Zoo would like to remove the large concrete blocks that elderly animals have difficulty climbing and the concrete moat that represents a hazard for older, less agile animals. They would also like easier access for keepers to the animals’ indoor areas for vet checkups, transportation, and facility maintenance.

To address these concerns, Woodland Park Zoo is planning a large renovation of its Asian animals’ area, which includes the sun bears, sloth bears and tigers and lions – the lions aren’t Asian, but their “behind the scenes” area is connected. At a recent planning meeting, I met with Stuart Kumasaka, who is leading the planning, and Anne Nichols. “As we design new exhibits with the knowledge of extended life spans, we take into account the needs of animals both very young and very old. We try to make sure the exhibits are usable and safe for animals at all stages of their lives,” Anne explained.

Jake seems pretty content, and the changes that the zookeepers are pushing for will probably go unnoticed by most of the public. But every concrete hazard that’s removed means less trips to the vet, and every gateway that’s improved means less stress on keepers and animals. Jake may no longer have contact with the public, but he gets plenty of love from his keepers. “Jake has had a great, long life and his dedicated keeper staff have done everything possible to make that happen,” Anne explains; “Jake is a beautiful ambassador for all lions, and his demeanor and personality only make him more loved by all who were lucky enough to be a part of his time here at the zoo.” Jake will turn 20 years old in June.