Staffers Mourn Zoo Animals Who Died In 2009 People think of zoos as places where animals live. But as living collections, they are also places where animals die. Those who cared for the animals who died this year at Smithsonian's National Zoo tell their stories of loss.
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Staffers Mourn Zoo Animals Who Died In 2009

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Staffers Mourn Zoo Animals Who Died In 2009

Staffers Mourn Zoo Animals Who Died In 2009

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This is our week of looking back at deaths over the past year. We tend to think of zoos as places where animals live, but they are also places where animals die. And we have this tribute from the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Mr. ED SMITH(ph) (Zoo Keeper, Smithsonian's National Zoo): Each of the three (unintelligible) were found dead in the morning, resting on the bottom of the pool. We're talking about fish seven or eight feet long.

Ms. MINDY BABITZ (Zoo Keeper, Smithsonian's National Zoo): Joe Gibbon(ph) was euthanized just a few weeks ago.

Mr. SMITH: Paul (unintelligible) was a wonderful shrew. And he was active right up until his last day.

Ms. REBECCA STICHT(ph) (Zoo Keeper, Smithsonian's National Zoo): Merlin was a very special sloth bear. At the age of 27, we considered him to be the equivalent of a person that's in their 90s. Even still, I mean, I don't think any of us were prepared for it.

Mr. DON MOORE (Associate Director, Animal Care, Smithsonian's National Zoo): The collection is aging all the time because that's what living collections do. Every animal is going to die someday.

I'm Don Moore. I'm the associate director for animal care here at Smithsonian's National Zoo. Keepers are very, very compassionate. I mean, it's really hard to lose one of your social group, if you will. And the animals are part of their social group.

Mr. MOORE: Don Moore, there are great cats

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

Mr. MOORE: So, we're in lion-tiger holding area. We're going to go see the Lusaka(ph) our older lioness. Well, Lusaka is 18 years old and is being treated for cancer.

Ms. STICHT: My name is Rebecca Sticht and I'm an animal keeper for great cats and bears.

(Soundbite of lion roaring)

Ms. STICHT: Lusaka is particularly spunky and she doesn't get along with the other lions that we have here. She is up here in this area of the building because we've kind of become her pride. Right now, we have her on a low dose oral chemotherapy.

(Soundbite of lion roaring)

Ms. STICHT: From what we can see so far, she's doing good under treatment.

Mr. MOORE: She could, you know, pass away tomorrow but she could also pass away in three years.

(Soundbite of lion roaring)

Ms. STICHT: We don't think of them as pets, but we do fall in love with them.

Mr. MOORE: It's hard to talk about. One of the things about working for a long time with animals is you tend to outlive just about everything you work with. With all the years I've been here, there is a ghost in just about every enclosure.

(Soundbite of lion roaring)

Mr. DAVID KESSLER (Biologist, Smithsonian's National Zoo): I'm David Kessler. I'm the biologist at the small mammal house. This year we had about - we had about 10 deaths of small mammals.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. KESSLER: We lost a lesser tree shrew, a 15-year-old three-banded armadillo named Shelly(ph), Mellida(ph) white nosed coati, three elephants shrews, golden lion tamarin by the name of Loraja(ph) in April. Degu(ph) two naked mole rats, a Damaraland mole rat, and Sparky(ph) our cavy died of liver disease in February of this past year.

I know in the past when a major animal has died, the zoo has brought in grief counselors to help the keepers. And there is a feeling amongst those of us in small mammals that we grief just as much.

Ms. LISA STEVENS (Curator of Primates and Giant Pandas, Smithsonian's National Zoo): We're standing behind our, one of our gorilla enclosures with our gorilla family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: My name is Lisa Stevens, curator of primates and giant pandas. Hocho(ph) is getting his evening meal.

I have been coming into this building now for 29 years. And when I walk through this building there are quiet moments when I recall the other individuals who have lived here. I think about Kuuya(ph), Kwame(ph), Kojo(ph) are his sons. And sometimes when I look in Kojo's face or Kwame's face, I can kind of see shades of Kuuya. Let me see. You're waiting very patiently for your food today. We really don't memorialize animals here. They live in our memories.

Mr. MOORE: I've been around death lot more than a lot of other people have.

Ms. STEVENS: It's just part of it. In the end, it's part of the whole dynamic process of caring for a zoo collection. And it's the part that I wish I could minimize.

Mr. MOORE: For a lot of people who get along with animals maybe better than they get along with people, animal deaths might be harder than even a human death.

Ms. STEVENS: I don't really see a whole lot of difference. Perhaps the only difference I see is that when we think about our human relationships, I think about bad times as well as good times. But when I think about the animals, there's almost never a bad time.

(Soundbite of noise)

Ms. STEVENS: There goes Kwame, letting us know we're on his turf here.

(Soundbite of noise)

Ms. STEVENS: In the end, it just seems as though there's this positive pure loss of a relationship that's not based on as much of the kinds of issues that we bring to our human relationships.

Mr. KESSLER: It's never easy. It doesn't matter how the animal dies. It doesn't matter how old it is or how young it is. It's never easy. You get used to it but you don't get used to it. And the minute you get completely hard into it, that's when it's time to leave the zoo world.

SIEGEL: That story was produced by Emily Botein. Thanks to Mindy Babitz, David Kessler, Don Moore, Ed Smith, Rebecca Sticht and Linda Stevens for sharing their animal memories. Our series on obits was produced by Emily Botein and edited by Deborah George.

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