Orson, our black jaguar, recently hit a milestone as he turned 18 years old at his longtime home on the Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. For Orson it was just another day, except for receiving a special frozen treat, a half of a cow femur bone, and handful of fish frozen into a “blood-sicle” (a mix of water and liquid from thawed meat products).
Within accredited zoos across North America, less than 10 jaguars are older than Orson, which puts him in an exclusive club. Much like housecats, any jaguar in his late teens is considered to be quite old. In rare instances jaguars have lived into their late 20s. In the wild, most jaguars live less than 10 years, as they must work hard for their meals and don’t have a staff of keepers and veterinarians looking after their well-being.
Orson’s longevity is a tribute to all of the keepers, vets, and nutritionists who have looked after him. Care of older animals like Orson can be very challenging. Animals have the innate instinct to mask any illness or injury they may be suffering from, because in the wild the slightest show of weakness may cause a predator or competitor to single them out. This is made even more difficult with a dangerous animal that you can not readily get your hands on to examine. We have trained Orson on several behaviors so we can more easily examine him. He stations on a scale for his weight to be taken, and he holds his mouth open on command for dental inspections. Fortunately, Orson has been amazingly healthy for his age, with just a small flare-up of arthritis in his knee.
On your next visit to the Zoo, make sure to stop by and appreciate Orson, the senior member of our Zoo’s cat collection. If you look closely, you may see a few gray hairs on his underside betraying his age.
Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Jaguar Rotation Continues.