One part of housing roughly 250 animals that not everyone talks about is their medical care.
Creatures at Zoo Boise get yearly wellness checks. They’re given vaccinations and have bloodwork done.
And like humans, they get sick. Cancer is a particular scourge. In the past four months, the zoo has seen three cases, ending with the deaths of two animals.
Wild animals are especially good at hiding symptoms of illness — it’s a way to hide weakness from predators. But keepers knew something was wrong with Jack, one of the zoo’s sloth bears, when he lost his appetite and became jaundiced, indicating renal failure.
Cancer had riddled the bear’s body with tumors, said Steve Burns, zoo director. Jack was euthanized on May 13.
Dr. Jeff Brourman is a veterinary surgeon and owner of the WestVet emergency care clinic in Garden City. He performed an exploratory surgery on Jack after testing showed signs of cancer. The bear, he said, had multiple tumors that originated from his bile duct and gallbladder, and then spread to other organs.
“It was deemed inoperable,” Brourman said. “There wouldn’t be any benefit to removing the (original) tumor because there were multiple other tumors.”
He has the experience to make such a call. Brourman said WestVet regularly sees animals with cancer, providing treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
“We deal with cancer every day. We have a full-time oncologist who only deals with cancer at WestVet,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate. We see it in old animals but we also see it in young animals. Just like you can see in children.”
Cancer was also responsible for the January death of male lion Jabari, and a meerkat named Spot had a tumor removed from his liver at WestVet in early May.
On Wednesday, Spot was back at Zoo Boise in the company of another meerkat, named Adeena.
Though Brourman usually works on domestic animals such as cats and dogs, he said the fact that Zoo Boise seeks out specialists and surgeons for its animals shows how much its staff cares. “You can tell they want to get these animals help,” he said.
Age is often a factor. Almost all species of animals live longer in captivity, said Holly Holman, the zoo’s full-time veterinarian.
“I don’t think people realize how old some of our animals are,” Holman said. “We deal a lot with old-age disease like renal failure, arthritis and those things.”
In many cases, animals at the zoo with those diseases receive successful treatment, she said.
Zookeepers watch for many warning signs: a change in an animal’s appetite, grooming habits, its hierarchy among the other animals in an enclosure, how much water it drinks.
Jack, for example, was a very food-motivated animal, Holman said. When the sloth bear stopped eating, keepers knew something was wrong.
When an animal’s death comes, private funerals are held and tears are shed — but only after keepers and vets pursue every option in providing medical care. It’s a complicated task: There’s the danger of working with a wild animal until it’s anesthetized, or the difficulty of moving an animal that weighs several hundred pounds.
“This is something we have to deal with, and just like with people, cancer is a tough, difficult disease that no one really understands,” Burns said. “And you try your best and sometimes (treatment) works and sometimes it doesn’t work.”
That reality and public perception don’t always line up, he said.
“You see a lot of reports of cancer in zoo animals, but it’s because they live long enough to get cancer,” Holman said.
In the wild, said Burns, animals contend with parasites, food issues, predators and severe weather. He noted the effects of this past winter on Idaho wildlife, including what Idaho Fish and Game expected to be the lowest mule deer fawn survival rate in 18 years.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, “because as the world becomes disconnected from nature, people don’t understand how the natural world works and everyone thinks it’s just a picnic.”