Orkney, San Francisco Zoo’s gray seal, is pushing 40 and is nearly blind due to age-related cataracts in both eyes. He spends his days in a habitat of his own, where he has learned to navigate — as well as eat and receive medical checkups — by feel.
As the zoo struggles to close a budget gap partially prompted by the fatal tiger mauling on Christmas Day last year, it is also struggling with a cost-saving measure that could be harmful for its animals: consolidating the creatures into one another’s habitat.
Moving some of the zoo’s oldest and wildest animals — such as Orkney — could even prove deadly if they are moved out of their solo apartments, interim Director Tanya Peterson said.
“Changing his environment when he can’t see would be extremely stressful to him,” said Jacqueline Jencek, the zoo’s head veterinarian. “There’s also the potential of him being beaten up by younger, healthy animals.”
Zoo animals have died after being moved before. Puddles, an elder hippo, died May 2007 after he and his mate, Cuddles, were moved into a bigger habitat. While 46-year-old Cuddles adapted easily to the new environment, which includes gentler ramps and a bigger pool to ease her arthritic limbs, the stress was too much for Puddles, Jencek said.
And Padang, a 19-year-old Sumatran tiger recovering from a leg injury she sustained in her youth, gets her own home with ramps — and is kept apart from the zoo’s brand-new, rambunctious tiger cubs for her safety, Jencek said.
Caring for elderly or special-needs animals is becoming more and more common at zoos across the nation as animals live longer and longer lives in captivity, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the 218-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Although San Francisco Zoo officials were not able to quantify how much more it costs to keep such animals separate — or to pay their doctor’s bills — there's no doubt those animals can cost more, Feldman said.
However, the sight of empty enclosures and exhibits may have another cost — patron disappointment. Washington state resident Don Jones brought his son, Jeff, to the zoo Thursday and came away disappointed.
“Half the exhibits were closed,” he said grimly. “My son had always wanted to come, and we had heard it was quite good.”
Mauling put facility in funding fix
The San Francisco Zoo is grappling with a budget shortfall between $700,000 and $2 million — and must come up with some solutions by Aug. 21.
Completion of the zoo’s financial outlook has already been pushed back at least once while leaders study the situation “top to bottom,” interim Director Tanya Peterson said.
The zoo’s top ongoing expense is labor, Peterson said, but costs associated with improving zoo safety following a Siberian tiger’s escape — and the fatal mauling of a 17-year-old patron on Christmas Day — put the zoo in a budget quagmire this year, spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said.
Loss estimates have ranged from $700,000 to $2 million in the last month, officials said.
Although Peterson said that the zoo was considering closing some animal habitats to save money, officials were mum about actual cost-saving plans.
The zoo's 2008-09 budget is scheduled to go before the Recreation and Park Commission on Aug. 21. — Beth Winegarner
Who’s who at the zoo
San Francisco Zoo hosts a number of “senior citizen” animals who are living much longer than they would in the wild. They require a little extra care, but many have developed quirky personalities in their golden years that make them patron favorites.
- Species: Gray seal
- Age: Unknown, at least 39
- Typical life span in the wild: Up to 25 years
- Condition: Blind, due to age-related cataracts.
- Trivia: Orkney has learned to navigate his enclosure by feel, and knows where to go for eyedrops, weight checks and getting his nails trimmed.
- Species: Hippopotamus
- Age: 46
- Typical life span in the wild: Up to 25 years
- Condition: Healthy, but suffering from arthritis.
- Trivia: Cuddles has a very “go-with-the-flow” personality and loves resting on the sandbar by her pool.
- Species: Polar bear
- Age: 28
- Typical life span in wild: Up to 20-25 years
- Condition: Healthy, but has different needs due to being raised in the wild.
- Trivia: Ulu loves digging deep holes, and has favorite stuffed animals she likes to dunk in the pool when she swims.
- Species: Chimpanzee
- Age: Unknown, at least 49
- Typical life span in the wild: 30 to 40 years
- Condition: Early-stage kidney disease requiring extra fluid intake, as well as arthritis.
- Trivia: Instead of dreading her treatment, Talullah comes running for “drink sessions,” in which her handler gives her water infused with different fruit flavors.
- Species: Mandrill
- Age: 23
- Typical life span in the wild: 20 years
- Condition: Very nearsighted, due to a brain lesion.
- Trivia: Because of her eyesight, Pearl gets a solitary breakfast and dinner — with as much time as she needs — so her fellow mandrills don’t steal her food.
Source: San Francisco Zoo