Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo: Carnivore “Golden Girls”

When you think of carnivores like jaguars and bears, what comes to mind? Sharp teeth and claws, perhaps? Maybe you wouldn’t want to run into them in a dark alley? This is true, but at the Houston Zoo, they have something else in common – ours are getting up there in years, and they have really interesting stories to tell.

Our two jaguars, Cocoy and Kan Balam, are quite the adorable elderly couple. If you were to compare Cocoy to one of the Golden Girls, she would most certainly be Sophia. She’s 18 years old, and her keepers describe her as a “feisty old woman.” Her age doesn’t stop her from being active, though – when keepers put enrichment items in her habitat to play with, she jumps on them like she’s a kitten! She is a great grandmother, and she and Kan Balam get into spats just like an old married couple.

Cocoy definitely enjoys her enrichment items!
Cocoy definitely enjoys her enrichment items!

Kan Balam, the younger of the jaguar pair, is still getting up there at 16 ½ years old. Most jaguars in zoos live into their late teens or early twenties, which is much longer than they live in the wild. When you visit Kan Balam, you’ll see that he limps – at a place where he previously lived before he got to the Zoo, another jaguar bit off ¾ of his front right paw. In his older years, he has developed arthritis because of this injury. That doesn’t stop him from moving quickly when he wants to get somewhere, though!

Kan Balam lost his paw before he got to the Houston Zoo, and he has developed arthritis as a result of his injury
Kan Balam lost his paw before he got to the Houston Zoo, and he has developed arthritis as a result of his injury

Our jaguars are also pretty darn smart. They, like most cats you probably know, don’t like to take pills much. If they see their keepers put them in meatballs, they’ll just spit out the pills when they gobble up the meatballs. The keepers are wise to this, though, and have learned to hide around the corner to prepare them so they don’t know the pills are in there!

Another Golden Girl is Patty, the Andean Bear. Her keepers say that she’d definitely be Blanche – she’s quite the flirter, especially with guests! Her keepers also note that she can be a bit manipulative by giving them “sad eyes.” One time, she even convinced her keepers that she didn’t get her dinner yet, and she ended up getting it twice! Her favorite foods are grapes, bananas, peanut butter, and fish.

Patty, the Andean bear
Patty, the Andean bear

Patty came to our zoo in May of 1987 at 1 year of age and lived most of her life with Willie, her mate, who passed away of old age in April of last year. She is still going strong, though, despite her ailments. She’s allergic to pretty much everything – grass, dust, cockroaches, mold – you name it! She gets local wild honey and allergy medications to get a bit of relief. She is on medicine for joint pain too, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing down into her moat without using the stairs!

Patty may be old, but that doesn't stop her from climbing!
Patty may be old, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing!

The Zoo’s two grizzly bears, Boomer and Bailey, are in their mid-30s, and they have had pretty rough lives. Before they came to the Zoo in 2007, they lived at the SPCA for a year. They were confiscated by the SPCA from a private individual who was not taking good care of them. They lived in tiny 6×4 foot cages, and they were in very poor health – their teeth were particularly bad. You may remember a video from a few years back when Bailey had a tooth removed.

Boomer has had cancer twice, which has resulted in blindness. This caused a particularly unique challenge with getting him to learn his surroundings, as he needed to go inside to get fed and so his keepers could clean his habitat, and he needed to go outside to get sun and relax. His clever keepers created a system to help him out – they spread a vanilla scent inside, and a garlic scent outside. Once he learned to associate those scents with each area, he learned to go inside and outside and navigate his habitat.

Boomer looking beautiful!
Boomer looking beautiful!

Thanks to Carnivore Keepers Angie, Cortney, and Sam for telling these wonderful stories so they could be written down, but more importantly for their love and passion for these amazing animals. We’re lucky to have incredible keeper and veterinary staff that is so dedicated to the care of every single animal at the Zoo, particularly the ones who need the most care in their older age.

2 thoughts on “Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo: Carnivore “Golden Girls”

  1. What wonderful stories to learn about your animal families! Would love to hear more about all the animals. Was wondering if you could put the name of the animals at exhibits where possible?

    1. Donna, this is a great idea! Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to implement. There are many animals that do stay in one spot for a while, but we’re constantly moving animals around or shifting them indoors/outdoors. Also, some animals move on to other zoos, and we constantly receive other animals from different zoos too. There are actually 2 entire people called registrars on our staff dedicated to managing all this stuff! One thing that may be helpful is downloading the Houston Zoo app. We have names of animals listed on there where we can, and we try to update it as frequently as possible. Hope this helps, and hope to see you back at the Zoo soon!

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