Rachel Duncan doesn’t remember the first time she visted the St. Louis Zoo, but she’s pretty sure she was an infant.
“There’s not a summer in my life that I have not come to visit the St. Louis Zoo and enjoyed what it has to offer,” said Duncan. “It’s a part of my entire life.”
Like many St. Louisans, she feels personally connected to the animals at the zoo. That prompted her to ask our Curious Louis reporting series: What happens when an animal passes away at the zoo? Do they have a funeral? And how does it impact the workers?
To find out the answer, we took a trip to the St. Louis Zoo to meet Bill Houston, the assistant general curator and director of the Saharan Wildlife Recovery Center.
Houston started out as an antelope keeper at the zoo in 1982. Unlike some zoos where staff take care of lots of different species, the keepers at the St. Louis Zoo specialize in certain groups of animals. As a result, they spend years working with the same individuals.
“You get to know these animals in a way that very few people in the world ever get to know them,” Houston said. “You see everything that it goes through. You see its growth; you see its development into a mature animal; you see it become a mother or a father itself.”
That close relationship helps the keepers notice subtle changes in an animal’s appearance or behavior that might signal an illness, such as low energy or messy fur.
It can also make it especially difficult when an animal dies. For some keepers, it’s like losing a friend.
“It’s really gut-wrenching for everybody, but in particular for the keepers because they're working with these animals, and they know them really well,” Houston said. “I'm not ashamed to say they develop a friendship with some of the species.”
Houston developed an unlikely bond with a babirusa named Homer. The Indonesian wild pig arrived at the zoo in the late 1980s, along with a female babirusa named Grace.
“He had so much personality,” said Houston. “Certain food items you'd give him and he’d kind of look at you like, ‘I’m eating that last.’”
Over time, Homer developed a variety of ailments that come along with old age, including arthritis.
Eventually, there came a day when it was time to say goodbye. A staff member stopped by to tell Houston that Homer was scheduled to be euthanized.
“They allowed me to come up and say goodbye to Homer,” he said. “It was very nice to get one last chance to scratch his snout and thank him for a great experience and great ride together.”
The zoo doesn’t have funerals, but they make a point to give staff and animals time to grieve.
It’s particularly important that highly intelligent, social animals have a chance to process the death, said Houston.
When one of their own dies, for instance, elephants and great apes will often gently handle the body and try to lift it.
“You can sense that there is this sense of loss,” said Houston. “They keep coming back to the individual and checking in and seeing if what they are experiencing is actually the truth.”
Once the animals stop returning to investigate the body, keepers will remove it from the enclosure and perform a necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy. Information from the necropsy helps staff rule out any infectious diseases or other underlying medical problems that might affect the rest of the group.
Despite the heartache associated with losing a beloved animal, at the end of the day, Houston said the keepers understand that death is an unavoidable part of the job.
“We grieve together when we lose one, but everybody recognizes that whether you're talking about your family or you're talking about zoo animals, mortality is always 100 percent,” he said. “Everybody dies.”
After talking with Houston, Rachel Duncan says she was surprised that the zoo staff doesn’t have funerals for the animals, but it makes sense to her.
“I guess maybe that’s normal, especially now learning that specific individuals only take care of specific animals, that maybe it’s not felt as widespread around the zoo as you might imagine it to be,” she said.
She pauses at the polar bear exhibit, where a group of children press their hands to the glass. The bear paddles its dinner plate-sized paws through the water, seemingly oblivious to the crowd.
“I can’t imagine spending a good portion of your career taking care of such amazing, outstanding animals and what that must do when you lose that part of you,” Duncan said, watching the bear. “When you lose anybody, even an animal, it impacts you.”
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @ShahlaFarzan
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