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Aging in Place at the Zoo

A look at how the Smithsonian’s National Zoo cares for elderly animals

By Holly Lawrence

Growing old in the zoo has advantages. Our country's leading accredited zoos may serve as some of the best models for us to observe an optimal aging-in-place environment. In these peaceful zoo worlds of lush and sprawling landscapes, elderly animal residents are revered, not marginalized. These older animals are free from the human worries about Social Security, health care costs or being sent to the nursing home.

Aging in Place
Ambika, the 70-year-old elephant aging in place at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo  |  Credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Instead, geriatric zoo animals remain in their home, receiving top quality health care, nutrition planning, companionship, enrichment activities and more. An extensive team of zoo staff and veterinarians implement care of their geriatric animals in much the same way that we humans aspire to receive care from medical professionals and caregivers.

Here in Washington, D.C., I regularly visit the Smithsonian's National Zoo, one of the top zoos in the country. I call this place Utopia for zoo animals. My favorite older citizen resides at the Elephant Trail exhibit.

Top Notch Caregiving

Meet Ambika, the 70-year-old female Asian elephant who is aging in place at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Ambika has called the National Zoo home since 1961.

"She is one of the oldest animals in the National Zoo, and she is certainly the oldest elephant at this time at the National Zoo," said Tony Barthel, curator of the Elephant Trails and Cheetah Conservation Station. "She is one of the oldest [Asian] elephants in North America, one of the top three."

"She's a real sweetheart," added Barthel, who has been one of Ambika's chief caregivers for 15 years. "We all spoil her, dote on her, and she loves that."

According to Barthel, Ambika has been "a pretty healthy elephant throughout her life." He explained, "I tend to think of Ambika as that 100-year-old person who still drives around and maybe uses the internet."

However, Ambika has developed signs of aging. She has recently showed signs of arthritis and joint stiffness, and is now on her last set of teeth. (Elephants go through six sets of teeth in a lifetime.) For her arthritis, Barthel explained, Ambika receives foot soaks every couple of days and pedicures and trims almost every day. "We spend a lot of time and attention tracking the way she moves and the condition of her feet," he said.

Barthel has 10 staff members on his team to handle daily care for the elephants, plus other management; nutrition specialists to design and deliver the food and a large veterinary team.

For her teeth issues, Ambika now receives special pre-chipped hay. "It has made a huge difference in helping Ambika maintain a healthy weight and just eat normally," said Barthel.

When the elephant facility was modified, the zoo incorporated more natural substrates of soft sand and grass, and not a lot of concrete. Home modification is a major part of caring for zoo animals as they age in their home habitat. "We involve our whole zoo maintenance staff. With elephants, everything is big. We need things built," Barthel said.

Physical Therapy, Elephant Style

Donald L. Neiffer, the chief veterinarian at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, said, "We all know the value of physical therapy, whether you are a human or a dog or an elephant. If you have arthritis and you choose, or are forced, to not move or to not use your legs or arms, the arthritis is just going to get worse."

Part of the treatment and preventive care for Ambika and Shanthi (the zoo's second oldest Asian elephant, who has severe arthritis) is to encourage mobility in the yard. With Shanthi, zoo staffers use wooden blocks to position her feet; this helps her take her ankles and wrists through different ranges of motion.

"The staff is interacting with her, training to have her move back and forth, and just go through the motions so she doesn't get stiff," said Neiffer of Shanthi's regimen.

Medication Management

As Neiffer explained the medications used to treat Ambika and Shanthi, it sounded like he was describing treatment for an elderly human patient: Anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen; nutraceuticals to help with joint fluid replacement and other treatments through injections to counteract aging and joint disease.


Neiffer acknowledged the veterinary field has seen medical advances. However, he said, "A couple of things have happened. It's the same as in human medicine. We've become much more proficient about keeping people and animals alive longer, so that neither humans nor animals are dying as frequently from infectious disease or trauma or nutritional disorders. The downside of that positive trend is that we are now dying of end-stage organ failure and cancers."

"Zoo animals and domestic animals, they're living longer," he continued. "There's been a pressure, a need, and a desire to provide better care for these geriatric animal patients. We're doing a lot of things with treatments and preventive techniques and therapy for geriatric animals that has never been done before."

Zoo Wellness Programs

According to Neiffer, the zoo has a preventive (or wellness) program, so all the animals are on some type of routine examination or evaluation schedule, either annually or every few years.

"It depends a lot on the species, some of the diseases they are prone to and some of the logistics involved with handling some of the animals," he said. "But within that group, we may have an animal that we see much more frequently because it has developed arthritis, or chronic ocular disease or cancer."

Innovative Treatments

The Smithsonian's National Zoo is one of a group of zoos promoting the use of different modalities to address medical problems, said Neiffer, adding they are using "the appropriate combination of Eastern and Western medicine, of traditional treatments and complementary therapy."

One example is the treatment for Shanthi's severe arthritis. "For Shanthi, we have done the intra-articular joint therapy, called IRAP. That's the treatment that's been used on humans, equine patients, probably on other domestic species," said Neiffer. "We are the first institution that ever tried it on an elephant."

According to Neiffer, the staff has been pleased with the novel treatment process. Down the road, he believes, it will benefit other elephants and large animals like rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses with similar problems.

Quality of Life Is a Priority at the Zoo

How does Ambika respond to her aging care? With patience and good humor, according to Barthel. "She doesn't like when we trim her cuticles, but she'll tolerate it. We trim the nails. We file the pads. We do the soaks."

Barthel commented, "You know, she can be mischievous sometimes. You often see Ambika standing in the tubs that we fill. As soon as we look away, she's got her foot somewhere else or she's got her trunk in the tub trying to do things."

If you're wondering how an elderly elephant likes to spend time: "Ambika's favorite thing in the whole world is just to stand and soak in the sun. She also likes being with the other elephants," said Barthel.

Birthday Party

Next year, the Smithsonian National Zoo plans to celebrate Ambika's 71 birthday. Working with the nutrition department, Barthel said there are "some really creative people on that team" who will recombine the usual ingredients from her diet into Ambika's cake, which they will also make easy to chew.

Barthel expects the zoo will have a little fanfare and attention: "We'll make a big deal for the public so they get to celebrate with us."

Holly Lawrence is a freelance writer on well-being and issues affecting older adults. Connect on LinkedIn. Read More
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