Innovating for OKC Zoo's Aging Animals

Compared to animals in the wild, those in human care tend to live significantly longer lives, sometimes doubling life expectancy. This presents unique healthcare challenges to Zoo veterinary staff and requires medical innovations to ensure quality of life is maintained for senior animals.

Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services, shared some of the innovative technologies and treatments being implemented at the OKC Zoo to make sure animals live long, happy, healthy lives.

Giraffe, Ursula

At 32, Ursula is the oldest giraffe in a United States zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In the wild, Rothschild giraffes like Ursula have a life expectancy of 15-16 years. She has chronic arthritis, particularly in her lower limb joints, making everyday activities less comfortable. Caretakers installed extra soft cushioning for Ursula to stand on indoors that helps cushion joints. Plus, they limit the amount of time she has to stand on hard surfaces.

The veterinary teams also prescribed a medication that slowed the progress of the disease and applied other treatments, including a relatively new therapy involving cold laser treatment. Cold laser therapy applies varying wavelengths of light that affect tissue on a cellular level. It reduces inflammation and pain while accelerating the growth of healthy new cells. The laser probe doesn’t actually touch the animal. While it only takes about 15 minutes to perform each treatment, it requires a various amount of behavioral training to teach the animal how to stand and position themselves so treatment can be applied. Cold laser treatment is also used for wound treatment. While use in humans has become commonplace, it’s a relatively new addition to the zoo medicine toolkit. 

Pygmy Hippo, Wolee

Like Ursula, Wolee is the oldest of his species in an AZA-accredited facility. At 43, he’s exceeded the life expectancy of a pygmy hippo in the wild by three years. With the exception of a bit of arthritis, Wolee is generally in good health, but he’s had some dental issues that required innovative treatments to resolve. After three procedures to remove infected teeth and fix resulting abscesses, he was still having issues with mouth infections. Veterinary caretakers added an antibiotic bone cement to the sockets to gradually release antibiotics over time around the areas of infection. This has proven effective in keeping Wolee healthy and pain-free.

Asian Elephant, Rex

Rex, 48, is developing a cataract in his right eye and as a result doesn’t see well on that side. Caretakers have modified how they feed and train Rex to enable him to see what they are doing so he won’t get spoked. Rex’s teeth, believed to be the sixth and final set of teeth he will produce during his life, are starting to wear down, making chewing more laborious. To reduce this burden, caretakers have started processing his hay in a chipper before serving it. This makes it easier to chew and digest.

Other Animals

  • Thirteen-year-old okapi, Caroli, had laparoscopic knee surgery performed last year and is at risk of developing arthritis in that joint. She will be receiving cold laser therapy once she’s been trained to properly position herself.
  • Two of the Zoo’s female African lions, 18-year-old sisters Tia and Bridget, are experiencing age-related arthritis effects. As a result, caretakers modified their habitat and enrichment activities so they don’t have to jump if they don’t want to.
  • Some of the Zoo’s older snakes are also afflicted with arthritis in their spins. Caretakers have modified their habitats to reduce twisting and bending.


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