Like people, as animals age, their abilities and needs evolve. Especially with animals that are considered geriatric or at an age that is near or beyond the average life expectancy for their species.
The Oklahoma City Zoo’s approximately 56-year-old female Asian elephant, Bamboo, is one of many geriatric animals in the Zoo’s care. Bamboo is part of a multigenerational herd of eight Asian elephants including Rex (54), Asha (27), Chandra (26), Kandula (21) Achara (8), Kairavi (4) and Rama just 9 months old. Per the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the life expectancy of an Asian elephant is 47 years.
Since 2019, Bamboo has exhibited behavior changes and slower mobility due to age-related health issues. Due to suspected damage to a ligament in her right knee, Bamboo occasionally exhibits a temporary loss of strength in her rear right leg. This loss of strength is momentary and presents itself as a leg that is buckling for a moment where it appears her knee “gives out” and may have to catch herself on habitat walls or furnishings to regain her footing. While the incident lasts only a few seconds, the team has noticed it has increased frequency over the past few weeks. Bamboo is being monitored closely by her care team to document the frequency and duration of these events.
The loss of mobility, flexibility and general activity is expected as elephants age. For many years now, the elephant care team has been providing a daily geriatric care program for both Bamboo and Rex who is also geriatric. This daily program is designed to encourage Bamboo and Rex to perform voluntary behaviors that demonstrate their ability to bend, flex and exhibit other natural physical behaviors. By recording this data, caretakers are establishing a baseline of mobility and are able to identify any changes that may occur.
With both Bamboo and Rex showing slower mobility, caretakers have been providing soft substrate, such as sand and grass, for them to stand, walk and sleep on. Since Bamboo has exhibited slower mobility in getting up after laying down to sleep, caretakers have built large sloping piles of sand, making it easier for Bamboo to lay down and get up. Since exhibiting behavior that indicates osteoarthritis, both Rex and Bamboo receive joint supplements and anti-inflammatory medications.
In addition to accommodating their mobility needs, caretakers also provide Bamboo and Rex with daily foot exams and treatments that clean and trim their nails and foot pads to prevent or treat abnormalities and abscesses. Bamboo and Rex also receive tooth exams – especially important for older elephants. Elephants have six sets of teeth over the course of their life span and both Rex and Bamboo are using their last set of molars. While Bamboo’s teeth show no signs of wear, Rex’s molars are exhibiting age-related wear, but he is still able to chew food without issue.
The OKC Zoo’s elephant care team will continue to take extraordinary care of Bamboo and Rex as they continue in their golden years, while also providing care for the entire herd. While we always wish animals could live forever, that is not the reality of nature. Excellent quality of life and optimal welfare are our primary concerns for every single animal at the Zoo and humane euthanasia is discussed whenever quality of life diminishes beyond medical treatment for any animal. Bamboo still has a very good quality of life but the Zoo’s elephant and veterinary care teams will continue to monitor her condition closely and share any changes in her mobility.
Photo credit: Andrea J.