Whole Life Care

April 2017

By Katie Morell

With Animal Welfare at the Forefront, Whole Life Care Decisions can be Emotional

On 20 January 2017, a 49-year-old white rhino named Alfred took his last breath. A resident of the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, Va., he was euthanized after a long struggle with arthritis and other age-related ailments. The decision was not made lightly; several parties—from vet staff to keepers to curators—had met and been discussing his declining health.

“We started to see signs of him moving slower in October [2016], shifting on and off exhibits more slowly, as well as a decrease in his activity level,” said Jennifer McNamara, the Zoo’s lead Africa keeper.

That same month, vets conducted a procedure—complete with anesthesia—to get a closer look. Although a definitive diagnosis wasn’t reached, it seemed that one of Alfred’s hind legs was giving him the most trouble. In the months that followed, no amount of pain medication was able to make a difference in Alfred’s quality of life.

“We wanted to respect him and not wait too long. His quality of life was our top priority,” said McNamara.

The decision involved communication with the public; many patrons had come to love Alfred over the 20 years of his Norfolk residency. Zoo staff posted about his procedure on Facebook and answered questions on-site and virtually.

“We wanted to respect him and not wait too long. His quality of life was our top priority,” said McNamara.

The result of these communications: a prepared public—evidenced in positive news articles following his death, many mentioning that Alfred had outlived the 40-year average age for a rhino in managed care.

“Death is something we have to deal with in this profession,” said McNamara. “Everyone was comfortable with the decision in the end because it was best for Alfred.”

The Challenging Side of Positive Welfare

The conversation around whole life care is a touchy one regardless of who’s talking. While the end of life part is arguably the most controversial and provocative to discuss, there are other important factors, including birth and an animal’s life-long welfare.

The latter, welfare, is something everyone can agree upon. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has an Animal Welfare Committee, which defines welfare as “an animal’s collective physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time, and is measured on a continuum from good to poor.”

Beth Posta, curator of behavioral husbandry and research at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio, and vice-chair of the AZA’s Animal Welfare Committee, said the conversation around welfare has changed in her tenure. “We are more aware of the needs of animals at different stages of their lives and how behavior and needs might change,” she said. “We are studying them more and paying more attention to their emotional and physical wellbeing.”

The result: animals in managed care are living longer than ever before, which means many AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums care for geriatric animals.

“We provide a lot of supportive care in terms of diet, vet care, temperature control and safety from predators,” said Dr. David M. Powell, director of research at the St. Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo., and acting director of the AZA’s Reproductive Management Center. “In the wild, they are likely to get killed or die from weak immune systems, disease or even their teeth wearing down.”

While this focus on welfare is undoubtedly positive, it also poses challenges for zoo and aquarium staff who want to preserve genetic diversity and enhance population sustainability. This push-pull situation creates some interesting questions, many of them around space issues:

(1) What happens when an animal becomes too old to navigate its exhibit? Is it ethical to euthanize the animal?

(2) What happens when a zoo or aquarium needs to breed a pair of animals, but space is being used by a healthy, geriatric animal?

(3) If available space for offspring is a concern, is it ethical to contracept a particular species?

Alfred, the white rhino, on exhibit at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, Va. © Virginia Zoo

Cultural Considerations

Answers vary depending on where you live. In the U.S., contraception for animals is largely acceptable and humane euthanasia (painless death) is considered reasonable only when quality of life is in question. There is less agreement with euthanasia for reasons of population management.

The practice is different in parts of Europe. “They want to allow animals to breed, and prefer that over putting them on contraceptives,” said Kris Vehrs, executive director at AZA. “In many areas of Europe, the philosophy is to mimic the natural life cycle of birth and dispersal (e.g., breed and humanely euthanize) over contraception.”

This difference was never more apparent than in 2014 when news broke that Marius, a healthy, 2-year-old giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo, had been euthanized because of a population surplus; he was subsequently dissected in public and fed to other zoo animals. What followed was a firestorm of criticism, largely from the U.S.

“I was on the board of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) during that time and the board itself was divided,” Vehrs remembers. “Americans on one side, and Danes on another; not all European countries agreed, either. I remember talking with a friend in the zoo world about the issue of elderly people scheduling their deaths in the Netherlands.  Marius really brought out our cultural differences and ethics around this issue.”

Broadly speaking, following Marius’s death, two trains of thoughts on population management euthanasia have emerged in the AZA community: animal managers consider humane euthanasia as an appropriate tool even if they might not use it; while PR/marketing professionals don’t want it to be used for population management reasons.


Almost all zoo animals are born in managed care (with a few exceptions), which means zoo and aquarium staff must consider when and if to breed them.

In 1981, the AZA established Species Survival Plans® (SSP) for many species with the intent to create organized guidelines for how to preserve and sustain the genetic diversity of each species. Today, there are SSPs for hundreds of species, each closely monitored by a committee of experts.

“The AZA is based on a principle of collaborative effort,” said Vehrs. “If a facility has an SSP species, it gets to choose at what level it wants to participate. It depends on the capacity of the organization. If it is a breeding institution, it needs to make sure there are the appropriate facilities to receive the offspring [before breeding].”

“Our cotton-top tamarins breed very well; if you don’t contracept on the day a baby is born, the female will get pregnant again,” said Sarah Long, director of the AZA Population Management Center, located at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill. “For great apes, we will often use human birth control pills.”


Death is a difficult topic for many in the zoological community. The staff that cares for an animal from birth can struggle emotionally to come to terms with end of life decisions.

“I think there are probably a couple scenarios where we would need to carefully consider euthanizing healthy but geriatric animals to make space,” said Powell. “Those conversations have been had, but I don’t know of a case where this has happened for population reasons.”

Every zoo manages its end-of-life process differently, but overall, most involve close monitoring of the animal from the moment it shows signs of decline.

“We look for level of alertness, responsiveness, ability to get food and water, weight loss and signs of pain or distress, among other factors,” said Dr. Jeff Wyatt, attending vet at Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, N.Y. “We have objective criteria or metrics like departures from normal behavior, facial expressions such as how open their eyes are, if their teeth are grinding, ear and whisker position, if they are guarding one side of the body or not.”

Numerous meetings are conducted to discuss next steps. Signs are often displayed in front of exhibits and volunteers are on-hand to discuss an animals’ health with the concerned public.

“We have to be careful not to perpetuate beliefs that creatures most like us have greater value,” said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society in Royal Oak, Mich. “We may not have the same number of meetings every time an animal is euthanized, but that is because there usually isn’t a great deal of disagreement when a tree frog is suffering as when a ‘charismatic’ mammal is in pain.”

The Importance of Discussion

While there isn’t an industry standard for how to move forward in every scenario, the conversation around whole life care is evolving.

“The bottom line is: how much can we identify suffering towards the end of life and how much do we tolerate some of the natural end of life decline?” said Dr. Nadja Wielebnowski, conservation and research manager at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore. “Those are hard discussions, and I think in the past several years, we’ve come a long way in our willingness to engage in them.”

Those discussions, and ultimately the decisions attached, all come through the lens of what is best for the animal.

“Once we take animals into managed care, we have an ethical obligation to them,” said Carter. “It is an obligation that spans from life to death.”

Katie Morell is a writer based in San Francisco, Calif.

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