The Minnesota Zoo is home to nearly 5,000 individual animals with individual needs. From half-ton brown bears to a minuscule clownfish, from newborn Farm Babies to a senior monk seal, the variety of species means a variety of specialized care is needed.
Caring for any animal requires knowing the species’ life history extensively, as well as taking the time and effort to understand each individual’s preferences and needs. The staff at the Minnesota Zoo are dedicated to providing the highest quality care possible to every unique animal that calls the Zoo home – and sometimes that’s not an easy feat.
“Providing medical care for all the different animal residents at the Minnesota Zoo is extremely rewarding and humbling at the same time,” said Dr. Taylor Yaw, Animal Health Manager at the Minnesota Zoo. “Our dedicated veterinary team has several decades of combined experience working in this field and we continue to learn new things about each species every day,” said Dr. Yaw.
The Animal Health team and zookeepers work in tandem to monitor each animal’s behavior. If a change is noticed in activity or appetite, that can often be the first sign that something isn’t quite right. In that situation, our animal care experts – from keepers to veterinarians – come together to find the right course of action for that individual animal.
“Our animal care staff are the front-line advocates for the animals that live at the Minnesota Zoo,” said Melanie Oerter, Minnesota Zoo Curator of Aquariums, Life Support, and Marine Mammals. “We observe them everyday to make sure we notice subtle changes so we can alert our veterinarians if we detect something concerning – like changes in how an animal moves or swims, changes in interest in food, or changes in body condition. Detecting subtle changes allows us to respond to medical concerns in a timely manner,” said Oerter.
Many times, it’s the oldest Zoo residents that need the most specialized care. That can be seen with the Zoo’s Hawaiian monk seal.
With our mission of conservation and education in mind, the Minnesota Zoo welcomed a group of rescued, non-releasable Hawaiian monk seals in 2015. At that time, each seal in the group was considered to be senior aged. Four of the five in the group had visual impairments that prevented them from being able to thrive in the wild.
“When they arrived, they were already 20 years old,” said Oerter. “It was kind of like adopting a group of 9-year-old foster dogs. We knew they were getting up there in years, but we welcomed the opportunity to give them an amazing home, provide them with the best care possible, and share these unique animals with our guests,” she explained.
Since that time, the seals have received the world-class care they needed. From eye surgery to ultrasounds, special diets, and enrichment – caring for a geriatric seal is no easy task, but one Zoo staff have taken on with ingenuity and expertise. The keeper staff at the Zoo spend significant amounts of time getting to know each individual animal. It didn’t take long, for example, for them to discern that “fish-cicles” and ice chunks were a favorite treat and enrichment opportunity for these seals.
As the years have gone by, our group of Hawaiian monk seals has become smaller. We now only have one – Ola – in our care. Each time we lose an animal due to advanced age, it’s a difficult moment. It’s difficult for staff who dedicate themselves each day to these animals and it’s difficult to guests who come to love these amazing creatures.
“Working with the Hawaiian monk seals has been a highlight of my career,” said Oerter. “When you work closely with an animal every day, you can’t help but get attached. Caring for these animals is a privilege that none of our staff take lightly. When an animals isn’t feeling well, you want to ask them what is wrong; sometimes you just can’t figure it out. It can be heart wrenching because you would do anything to help them feel better.”
Ola continues to do well and remains an ambassador for her wild counterparts. Monk seals are a mostly solitary species and don’t live in colonies like sea lions or other seals. They spend a significant portion of their lives out at sea, diving and searching for food- they have been recorded to forage at depths greater than 1,000 feet in search of food! When not swimming and diving, they come to shore to birth and rest and prefer sandy, protected beaches. The Discovery Bay habitat at the Minnesota Zoo is well-suited to caring for these animals.
“The team of marine mammal trainers and the veterinary medical team at the Minnesota Zoo work around the clock to ensure that our remaining monk seal Ola lives her best life possible,” said Dr. Yaw. “One of only three Hawaiian monk seals in human care, Ola currently has the largest monk seal water system among zoo facilities to explore and a dedicated care team to interact with her every day. She participates in routine scheduled medical examinations and has a team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians on-call to respond to her any time of the day,” said Dr. Yaw.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. There are thought to be fewer than 1,400 individuals in the wild remaining today. That makes it even more of an honor to be able to care for such a magnificent species. This charismatic marine mammal has provided Zoo guests with the opportunity to learn about wildlife conservation and to build a foundation of empathy and intrigue for the diversity of life we share our planet with.