Expert Animal Care At Every Age

A vet using two hands, each with a blue latex glove on, to hold onto and spread open a harbor seal's right rear flipper.
Harbor seals at the Aquarium are trained to voluntarily participate in their own health care.

In a recent post, we shared what it’s like to care for the Aquarium’s 12,000+ individual mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates. Providing the best lives possible for the animals in our care is our priority, with our veterinary and husbandry team at the forefront, monitoring the health of the animals each and every day. 

Taking the lead is Director of Animal Health Dr. Caitlin Hadfield, MA VetMB DAZCM DECZM. She’s the veterinarian in charge, performing routine observations, interpreting daily records with animal husbandry staff, providing treatments for animals when injuries or illnesses are diagnosed, and undertaking physical examinations routinely and when issues of concern arise. 

Not surprisingly, some of those issues of concern are related to aging. Geriatric* medicine is becoming much more of a focus for animal care specialists at zoos and aquariums—including yours truly!—accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for the best possible reason: as we learn more and get better at what we do, animals are living longer and longer lives. 

*The term “geriatric” refers to old people and animals, especially with regard to their health care. Just as elderly humans require specialized medical care, elderly animals do as well. 

Caring for aging animals at the Seattle Aquarium

Here at the Aquarium, we’re fortunate to have a number of geriatric animals entrusted to our care. For instance, at age 35, harbor seal Barney has reached a biological age that’s roughly the equivalent of a 95-year-old human!

Harbor seal Barney lifting his head up and opening his mouth as a staff biologist hands him a small fish.
Harbor seal Barney, who is 35 (a biological age that's roughly equivalent to a 95-year-old human!) showing off his appetite.

And northern sea otter Adaa, at age 22, is now the oldest male sea otter living at a U.S. zoo or aquarium accredited by the AZA. He’s also the eldest male sea otter on record in the AZA studbook. (Not sure what a studbook is? Stay tuned for an upcoming post, where we’ll fill you in—and introduce you to the AZA’s Species Survival Plan program as well.) 

Sea otter Adaa floating on water on his back in a habitat at the Seattle Aquarium.
Adaa was rescued and rehabilitated after being found on an airport runway as a pup. Now, at 22, he's now is the oldest sea otter living at an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium in the U.S.

Aging is a complex process that refers to changes in all the systems and functions of an animal’s body; however, aging develops at different rates in different species. Some species of salmon, for example, have a very brief life (chronologically), dying soon after spawning after just a few years at sea maturing. 

Evolving care over time

“The goal of geriatric care is to maintain quality of life for the individual animal during a time when they would normally be vulnerable to predation or unable to source food for themselves in the wild,” says Director of Life Sciences Grant Abel. “Geriatric care at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, like ours, is respectful to the animals—for their lives and the intrinsic value of those lives.” 

What that care involves differs by species, and by the individual animal. “We work to create and maintain an environment for the animals that isn’t presenting threats to them, although this is also challenging when you have mixed species living together in large habitats such as the Aquarium’s Window on Washington Waters, Underwater Dome and Tropical Pacific habitats,” Grant comments. “It’s important for our aquarists to understand the predator-prey relationship between species and provide consistency in habitat, water quality, food quality and availability, and lighting.” 

How does care evolve over time for marine mammals at the Aquarium? “As these species begin to reach and exceed their chronological life expectancy in the wild, we may begin to adjust how we work with them,” notes Grant. For instance, as mammals age, the risk of contracting several age-related eye diseases—such as cataracts—increases, just as it does in aging humans. Prior to and at this time in an animal’s life, the Aquarium’s animal husbandry specialists introduce more voice cues or signal a mammal by touching its whiskers, replacing some of the visual cues that with younger animals that have full vision capabilities.

Providing the very best care and quality of life for the animals entrusted to us—at all stages of their lives—is a vital part of our mission, Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment. Learn more about animals at the Aquarium on our website or, better yet, schedule a visit with us soon!

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