What's In 10 Years' Worth of Sequoia Park Zoo Animal Autopsies



"Monty" was not feeling well. The 17-year-old male Pygora goat's osteoarthritis had stopped responding to medication. In the extreme upper age range for his species, which usually lives to 14, the ram was in otherwise good health, with the veterinarian reporting his skin, heart and urinary system were all normal. But due to his chronic pain, staff feared the elderly goat was no longer enjoying his environs at the Sequoia Park Zoo Barnyard. Determining that his quality of life had substantially deteriorated, on Dec. 19, 2017, staff made the decision to euthanize him. He was then put into a freezer to await a necropsy by local veterinarian Kevin Silver.

The end of Monty's life doesn't tell us much about his contribution to our own lives, about the joy he may have given local children when they got to scratch behind his ears or felt him nuzzle their hands in search of treats. But his necropsy and those of the 110 other zoo animals reviewed for this story do illustrate a small and poignant piece of their histories and reveal aspects of zoo life we rarely think about. Between 2008 and 2018, roughly 252 animals at the Sequoia Park Zoo ceased crawling, buzzing, jumping, leaping or flying. Most shuffled off life's mortal coil at a respectable age but others suffered the consequences of violence, lust and folly. These are some of their stories.

House Mouse Reigns But Briefly

The lives of the house mice, mus musculus, who rustle about in the zoo's barnyard, are instructive in their brevity. The house mouse rarely lives longer than three years, even when shielded from predators. To curb the species' notorious fecundity, the zoo maintains the mice as a single-sex colony, with five to 10 of the critters living communally at any given time. Of all the creatures, the mouse population suffers the most losses in proportion to its numbers, with as many as half of them dying each year. Most mice near the end of their lives with visible tumors, which allows the zoo staff to bypass the normally mandated necropsy that, according to the zoo's accreditation standards, is required for all species of animal that die at the zoo, with the exception of most invertebrates or "in certain cases where the cause of death is obvious or reasonably well known, such as fish stranding or extreme old age."

The Domestic, the Exotic, the Geriatric

As with Monty the goat, most of the zoo's animals pass at an advanced age, usually after intense observation by zoo staff who try to discern whether the pain of living has outweighed its joys. Consider the case of "Hufflepuff" the Angora rabbit, a former "animal ambassador" who once greeted guests at zoo fundraisers. In October of 2011, after observing Hufflepuff's discomfort due to arthritis, her emaciation and occasional bouts with diarrhea, staff decided to euthanize her. The subsequent necropsy revealed a tumor in Hufflepuff's guts, with the veterinarian noting her "extreme advanced age."

Gretchen Ziegler, the zoo's director, says the animal population cycles through seasons of geriatric and dying animals. Because animals are often acquired in batches or breeding pairs, this can mean that death comes as a season for some species, such as the spider monkeys "Crazy," "Toothless" and "Junior," who died in 2008, 2009 and 2013, respectively. Crazy, a 40-year-old female, was euthanized after an exam showed an "extremely poor prognosis" for the venerable primate. The subsequent necropsy revealed several tumors and a necrotic colon. Her companion Toothless was euthanized six months later after also suffering the effects of carcinoma.

The death of Junior, the male in the band, came two years later. He died at the age of 43, after several weeks of depression and lethargy along with bouts of diarrhea. The staff treated him for dehydration and parasites. On the morning of his death, Dec. 9, 2013, he was "sitting out in the enclosure ... vocalizing strangely." He was anesthetized so the veterinarian could run diagnostic tests, then brought to a warm room with blankets and a heater to recover. He died at 10 p.m. Tests of his blood and tissues, sent to an out-of-state laboratory, confirmed leukemia.

An anonymous complaint submitted to the zoo on Sept. 18, 2014, references Junior's death. The complaint shows extensive knowledge of the primate enclosure.

"Low nighttime temperature is the probable cause of the zoo's most recent spider monkey death," the complaint states, alleging that the bedding and heating systems were insufficient for the primates, who are acclimatized to an equatorial temperature. The complainant alleged that the enclosures should have padded, heated sleeping areas and that the Sequoia Park Zoo has only a "board platform" and relied on inadequate space heaters.

A response issued two months later by the city's Animal Welfare Committee said staff have been instructed to maintain the nighttime temperature in the enclosure between 65 and 78 degrees, well above the United States Department of Agriculture and Assocation of Zoos and Aquariums' minimum guidelines. The committee does acknowledge that the spider monkeys' floor heater had failed several years before and was replaced by a mobile radiant wall heater. On two occasions in 2013, that heater did not keep the enclosure warm enough due to extreme temperatures and human error. In regard to the bedding issue, the response states that the keepers had tried to introduce bedding but the animals avoided it, and "are somewhat nervous of changes to the night houses."

The staff did agree to buy a new heater and introduce new bedding materials.

"Whether they will be accepted will be left to the discretion of the spider monkeys," the report says.

The report roundly rejected the idea that Junior's death was attributable to temperature, referring back to the necropsy. Junior was a very old monkey; his species lives to about 22 in the wild, 30 in captivity. Ziegler says the loss of Junior, the longtime patriarch of the troupe, was very hard on the surviving spider monkeys, "Jake" and "Candy."

"It is always hard for social animals to lose their companions, primates in particular," Ziegler told the Journal in an email. "If possible we try to allow the survivors to see their deceased exhibit mate's body for a time instead of whisking it away."

Ziegler added that because spider monkeys are critically endangered in the wild and increasingly rare in zoos, when Candy (now 46) passes, the zoo will probably find a bachelor group at another location for Jake instead of getting more of his kind.

No Backbone, Still Noted

In 2010, death rocked the zoo's banana slug population. While the exhibit suffers routine single-dgit losses of the small, slimy redwood forest natives, that year saw 14 die. Ziegler said this might be attributable to a mite infestation. To be certain, staff did a "complete overhaul" of the exhibit materials. Those deaths, too, might be "coincidentally age related," but as "their bodies decay so quickly after death ... necropsies are rarely feasible."

Not so with three of the zoo's tarantulas, which died between 2010 and 2014. The causes of death in all three, according to the veterinarian, could not be determined. Little information was included in the necropsies, other than that their deaths were not associated with molting. At least one death — that of a 20-year-old Chilean rose tarantula — was assumed to be age-related. Some species of tarantula can live to be 40, something to remember the next time one goes missing in your home or business.

The Case of the Frozen Opossum

A time lapse between the date of passing and necropsy of several opossums under the zoo's care, "Oliver," "Petunia," "Fletch" and "Cotton" among them, caught our attention. Fletch, a male opossum, was necropsied three months after his death in January of 2010, and posthumously diagnosed with heart failure, the veterinarian noting "considerable fat around musculature and organs." According to Ziegler, opossums are a short-lived species that are "fantastic for educational purposes." They usually die at around 2 years, which is tough for zoo staff, who Ziegler says "try not to bond with them" but often fail. Ziegler says whether an animal is frozen pending necropsy often depends on a veterinarian's schedule but it's not ideal. The zoo has a carcass freezer on hand for animals that must wait for examination but it's preferred a corpse be kept "chilled" instead of frozen. Two opossums, including Oliver, appear to have been frozen for a couple of years; necropsy reports for both show a 2008 death date and 2010 examination at the Humboldt State Wildlife Diseases laboratory.

Birth Has Its Own Perils

In July of 2014, the county welcomed "Cini" and "Masala," twin red panda cubs whose names mean "sugar and spice" in Hindi. Unmentioned in the city's merry "Panda-monium" press release about the zoo births was a third cub, whose presence keepers observed on the camera monitor but which apparently died at the tender age of 4 days, either of natural causes or suffocation. Ziegler says pandas can be "clumsy at times," but policy is to observe and not interfere. The mother, "Stella Luna," ate her dead young, which is "natural, nest-cleaning behavior."

"She's such a good mom," Ziegler boasts.

Dead cavy kits also appear on the rolls, including three found in the exhibit during morning rounds on July 10, 2013. The kits were the result of an "unknown pregnancy" and appeared in "good body condition," with the necropsy revealing little to indicate cause of death, aside from probable maternal neglect. The cavy females were subsequently put on birth control to prevent further surprises.

Birds Live Lives of Danger, and Die Deaths of Infamy

The avian species seem to be the only group to suffer disproportionately from crimes of violence. Ziegler says wounded birds are evolved to hide when they're not feeling well, meaning they might be discovered after they have passed away from their wounds. Most appear to be victims of bird-on-bird violence, such as a frizzle bantam chicken found between the barnyard's trough and outbuilding in April of 2008 with a deep cut over its lower back, suspected to have been the target of flock aggression. A blackheaded grosbeak was found to have drowned during a morning check of the aviary, with the vet noting lacerations of its hip and tail. "Unknown if what caused lacerations caused it to fall into the pond," the report states.

Still, most avian death seems attributable to the same sources as other species: old age and birth. Impacted eggs, chicks that don't thrive, heart disease and cancer all appear as diagnoses. The deaths of birds, from "Sterling" the 45-year-old parrot to "Suzie" the 6-year-old Sussex hen, are all carefully investigated. Most are sent to the University of California at Davis for a complete examination to rule out contagious avian diseases. Barnyard chickens in particular have a lot of contact with humans.

One to five chicken necropsies are performed each year, costing taxpayers around $100 per bird, a modest fee to prevent the spread of bird flu. Junior's examination cost $510, which Ziegler says is around the upper end of the cost spectrum for necropsies.

Bearing the News

At the beginning of its life, the Sequoia Park Zoo — the oldest in the state ­­— was more of an exotic animal spectacle than an educational facility. Its original zookeeper, Charles Kreps, was a former homesteader hired because of his familiarity with livestock. At one time zookeepers accepted all species of exotic animal (the Lions Club, for example, donated two lions in 1910) and put them in bare cages. Many animals that were exhibited then without consideration of proper husbandry would never appear at the zoo today.

In 1982, Eureka City Manager Robert Stockwell and Parks and Recreation Director Ben Adan made the controversial decision to euthanize two adult bears and rehome their cubs as they allegedly could not afford to move the bears while their habitat was being rebuilt. The cost of the new habitat was $25,000. The cost to ship the adult bears to a wildlife park would have been $600. The public was understandably upset. Picket signs sprouted outside the zoo and Adan was hounded from his home and position by gunshots, obscene phone calls and other threats.

People magazine, from which we got many of the details about the death of the two bears, called the incident "America's most notorious ursicide."

Goodbye Ursa, Hello Canid

Just as bonded animals may need avenues to grieve, the zoo's current staff also try to find a way to help humans say goodbye. When Bill the Chimp, a beloved member of the Sequoia Park Zoo family, passed in June of 2007, the community mourned. Bill, who came to the zoo by way of a circus act, had been a fixture since 1957 and would be the Sequoia Park Zoo's last chimp. Like the lions, the camel named "Miss Eureka" and several other exotic animals the zoo accepted before standards changed, zoo caretakers helped Bill finish his life in the place he had learned to call home, but the idea of replacing him was out of the question.

What to do with animals' remains once they pass is, according to Ziegler, a "real conundrum." Some are buried, some cremated. The zoo often gets inquiries from scientists asking for remains to use in studies. Bill's remains went to a university for this purpose but because of his iconic status, Ziegler had asked that any cremated remains after the study be sent back to Eureka, where they were buried in a memorial exhibit called Bill's Garden.

People also gathered to mourn "Rosemary," a 29-year-old black bear born in captivity and euthanized in 2012 after several years of poor health. Rosemary was one of the cubs temporarily rehomed in Oregon during the infamous 1982 bear scandal. She returned to the newly built exhibit with her sister "Maxine," who passed in 2006. The elderly bear, her muzzle gray with age, had been partially paralyzed for several years due to spinal problems but, despite the fact that she was often tired and dragged her back legs around the exhibit, seemed to enjoy her food and derive more joy than pain from life. But when she grew progressively weaker and her kidneys began to fail, staff summoned people to say goodbye. Many left flowers and remembrances at the exhibit, including an illustration drawn by a young girl that Ziegler keeps across from the desk in her office. Rosemary was euthanized Dec. 28, 2012.

Ziegler says after Rosemary's death the zoo opted not to get another bear, instead turning the grotto into habitat for a pair of South American bushdogs, two brothers that were bred in captivity at the Palm Beach Zoo. The unique canid species requires less space than bears and was recently joined by a female the zoo acquired from Europe. Bushdog babies may soon be the next Panda-monium. We wish all involved good health.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry

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