Zoo animals' deaths elicit both scientific and emotional responses

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Death of a zoo animal can represent a mournful moment in the circle of life while providing an opportunity to advance animal science.

Zoos typically conduct a necropsy, or animal autopsy, so that they can learn and educate through the death. But they also recognize the profound effects on humans and fellow animals.

That heart-heavy process got under way at 6 p.m. March 10 at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium when Noname, an 18-year-old Komodo dragon, died during exploratory surgery that revealed an intestinal obstruction and pockets of water in the abdomen. The 230-pound, fork-tongued Indonesian lizard with toxic saliva was tame and could be petted.

Noname's mother had been a gift to President Ronald Reagan in 1988 from the Prince of Indonesia, where Komodo dragons -- the world's largest lizard -- are considered national treasures. The only Komodo dragon at the zoo, Noname was among the second group of eggs ever hatched in the United States. His death hit zookeepers hard, as they prepared him for the necropsy. Afterward, Noname's remains would be cremated.

"It's the hardest part of the job when you lose a favorite animal," said Henry Kacprzyk, curator of reptiles and the Kids Kingdom. "Everyone handles it differently. Some people get emotional, but I hide my emotions and wait until I get in the car to tear up. You know you'll never have another one like it."

A Pittsburgh Zoo employee since 1980, Mr. Kacprzyk has experienced many animal deaths, including intelligent species such as gorillas, orangutans, dolphins and sea lions.

When an animal of higher intelligence that lived in a social group passes away, he said, zookeepers place the body inside a room that serves as a makeshift funeral parlor adjacent to the habitat with the door left open so survivors can enter.

Primates, among other species, often stand over the body, study it, sniff it and even try to move it or wake it up before paying animal tribute with obvious grief -- a reaction shared by human and beast.

When a zoo death occurs, be it the tiniest snake, lizard or rodent, or a humongous elephant, giraffe or rhinoceros, veterinarians do the necropsy to determine cause of death. They also collect tissue, blood and organ samples and take photographs to fulfill requests from researchers. A large-animal necropsy can take a full day to complete.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Kacprzyk said, also has standing requests for samples, especially from threatened or endangered species, to help it identify body parts that illegal collectors might try to transport in and out the country.

Patty Peters, spokeswoman for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said there's a big binder of protocol on precise tissue samples or photographs that researchers need from deceased elephants, which are usually buried because cremation can take 24 hours.

The San Diego Zoo does necropsies even on dead insects from its insect zoo to determine whether a pathogen might jeopardize the entire colony, said Christina Simmons, San Diego Zoo Global spokeswoman. That zoo complex, often ranked the nation's best, disposes of all animal remains in a chemical crematory that uses enzymes to reduce a carcass to ashes, she said, without producing pollution. That zoo also does investigative work worldwide, including its discovery that large African vultures were dying off because they were feeding on dead cows, whose feed contained hormones that were poisonous to the birds.

The Pittsburgh Zoo received a special request years ago from anthropologists interested in butchering a dead bison or buffalo with stone tools to study how Native Americans butchered animals. "They spent a full day with chipped stone," Mr. Kacprzyk said, noting the daylong task was far more difficult than anticipated. "The anthropological study was grueling."

Necropsies also produce "biofacts" -- animal parts the zoo can use for educational purposes. Zoos must receive federal permission to keep animal parts to foil illegal acquisition. Skulls, teeth, tusks, horns, bones and pelts, including those from tigers and snow leopards, are among the favorite biofacts.

No research requests exist for Komodo dragon tissue, blood or parts, Mr. Kacprzyk said. Although full necropsy results won't be available for weeks, veterinarians found that an enlarged lymph node was compressing Noname's intestinal track.

The final decision for veterinarians is whether to bury or cremate the remains. In general, large and small animals are buried, while medium-size animals are more likely to be cremated. Burial is done without ceremony or marked graves, to prevent grave robbing.

Modern-day procedures, Mr. Kacprzyk said, replace less respectful methods used decades ago when dead zoo animals were sent to a rendering plant on Herrs Island, now Washington's Landing. Giraffes, elephants and other creatures too large for the rendering process would be buried there. "When they did excavations for the Washington's Landing development, they ran into those things including giraffe skulls," he said. "But that's a bygone era."

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md., a zoo-accreditation service with 225 members mostly in the United States, sets general recommendations for necropsies, burial and cremation. "Since zoos are educational institutions, it is important to educate the public when animals are born and educate the public when animals die," said Steve Feldman, AZA spokesman. "If we learn why they died we can improve veterinary procedures for the future."

At the Pittsburgh Zoo, other notable zoo deaths were Rocky, the Kodiak bear, in August 2010, and the February 2002 death of Chuckles, the 34-year-old Amazon River dolphin with a perpetual smile.

Mr. Kacprzyk's past favorites included an African gray parrot with a large vocabulary that learned to react like an angry cat when annoyed by noisy puppies in the room. It had seen cats successfully scare the puppies, so it would meow angrily and flash its claws at the rambunctious pups.

"It's a circle of life," Mr. Kacprzyk said of animal deaths. "With life you have death, and with death you have a procedure for what you do and how you handle it. It is a microcosm of what happens in the human community."

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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