Geriatric Animal Care and End of Life Decision-Making in Zoological Institutions
IAAAM 2014
Elizabeth C. Nolan1*; Donald Neiffer1; Scott Terrell1; Joy Dias2; Angela Miller1; Jill Piltz1; Kim Odell1; Maggie Gonio1; Greg Peccie1; Joseph Christman1; Matthew Hohne1; Jill Mellen1; Eduardo Valdes1
1Disney's Animals, Science and Environment, Bay Lake, FL, USA; 2Gainesville, FL, USA


With the advancements in veterinary medicine and potential for animals aging beyond median life expectancy1 in zoological institutions comes the need for attention to geriatric animal care management and end of life decision-making. Managing older animals involves physical, health-related, and social challenges, including the determination of an animal's appropriate needs with consideration for their "welfare," "wellness" and/or "quality of life." The concept of veterinary hospice has gained more attention in recent years but differs from human hospice in that such care does not preclude euthanasia.2,3 It does, however, focus on relieving pain and anxiety, maintaining quality of life, and facilitating "family" preparation, similar to human hospice. The complexity of geriatric animal cases and the inherent difficulty in evaluating quality of life and end of life decisions are challenging to veterinarians and animal care staff alike.

Disney's Animals Science and Environment (ASE) embarked on a several-month project to address some of the geriatric animal care and end of life decision-making challenges that face a diverse and large animal care and veterinary staff. Our end goals were to provide the best possible care for the individual animal, as well as provide resources and communication tools for animal care staff when managing aging animals. A committee representing veterinary, husbandry, and science teams was assembled to develop a two-day seminar centered on geriatric animal care. The workshop included pre-meeting homework in which all husbandry teams answered questions regarding end of life decision-making for animals under their care. The first half-day workshop was composed of lectures and small discussion groups involving animal care managers and veterinarians. Focus topics included common terminology, quality of life assessments, end of life decision-making process, homework review, and grief management for animal care staff. Two weeks later, a full-day lecture seminar was held for animal care staff, primarily keepers and aquarists. In addition to the talks presented at the managers' seminar, lectures were also offered on geriatric animal medical conditions, drug and alternative therapies, nutrition, and husbandry techniques and strategies. Feedback was requested and received from all participants of the seminars. Opportunities to improve geriatric animal care as well as communication and expectations around end of life decision-making were identified. A web-based resource site was generated for Disney animal care staff and included materials from the workshops and reference literature. Action items generated from both seminars are currently being addressed by a new committee of animal care and veterinary staff.

The benefits of such efforts have proven to be much more than revived enthusiasm in and attention to geriatric animal care and welfare at Disney. There has been more pointed focus on improved communication between all levels of animal care staff and management. There has been clarification of expectations with regards to end of life decision-making, including the assurance that all have a voice in the end of life discussions of animals under their care. There has been open discussion of difficult topics such as the grieving process and the impact it can have on individuals, teams, and an animal care operation. This multidisciplinary, cooperative project offers an example of one way to start these conversations, and ultimately improve animal care and help staff relations, at any zoological facility that houses geriatric animals.


The authors would like to thank the staff at Disney's Animal Kingdom and Epcot's The Seas with Nemo and Friends for their participation in discussions and workshops involved with this project.

* Presenting author

Literature Cited

1.  Faust L, Dewar S, Peters P. Accurately answering the age old question: how long do they live? Association of Zoos & Aquariums website. Website:

2.  Johnson CL, Patterson-Kane E, Lamison A, Noyes HL. Elements of and factors important in veterinary hospice. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2011;238:148–150.

3.  Jessup DA, Scott CA. Hospice in a zoologic medicine setting. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine. 2011;42(2):197–204.


Speaker Information
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Elizabeth C. Nolan
Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment
Bay Lake, FL, USA

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