Curious Cbus: What Happens To Zoo Animals When They Die?

Feb 14, 2019

At the end of last year, the Columbus Zoo faced the loss of three giraffes and an Asian elephant calf over the span of six weeks. The deaths were unconnected, and zoo officials say an external review committee found there was nothing they could have done to save the animals.

But listener Judy Guion-Utsler had a different question for our Curious Cbus project: What happens to the zoo animals after they die?

“Everything that passes at the zoo has a complete post-mortem examination. A post-mortem is an animal equivalent of an autopsy," says Dr. Randy Junge, the Columbus Zoo vice president of animal health. "We obviously want to know why the animal died.”

That’s where veterinarians like Dr. Chris Premanandan come in. He’s a professor of veterinary biosciences at The Ohio State University. Along with faculty and students at the veterinary college, he carries out autopsies of animals from all over Central Ohio. 

“Obviously compared to a human autopsy facility, the requirements are different, especially in terms of large animals,” Premanandan says. 

In the College of Veterinary Medicine autopsy room, there's a magnet block of butcher knives mounted to the wall and a buzzing blue light meant to attract any flies that may circle the animal’s corpses.

Dr. Chris Premanandan is a pathologist at Ohio State's College of Veterinary Medicine, and performs autopsies on animals who died at the Columbus Zoo.
Credit Clare Roth / WOSU

Premanandan is a pathologist, a sort of disease detective for animals. He spends half his time on live animals and half on autopsies like those for the zoo. 

“It’s a multi-step process, in which we do the gross examination of the animal," he says.

Next, they preserve and process parts of the animals into slides to get a closer look.

“So we look at things from an external perspective during an autopsy, then we take these tissues and look at them microscopically,” Premanandan adds.

While the dead animals obviously cannot be saved, Premanandan says there are big benefits to these sort of post-mortems. They bring closure for the animal’s owners and can help prevent future deaths in the same herd. Plus, they contribute to the knowledge base for professionals like him.

Cami was one of the giraffes who died at the Columbus Zoo last year.
Credit Grahm S. Jones / Columbus Zoo & Aquarium

“We get better at treating diseases when we understand the diseases better," he says. "That’s kind of the feedback on if we look at enough certain cases of a particular disease, let’s say a tumor, we can see the pattern in which it spreads, the pattern in which it responds to therapy. That will help future animals in terms of their treatment.”

That’s especially important for exotic zoo species that veterinarians don’t see as often as domestic or agricultural animals.

“Many veterinarians go their entire life without seeing the inside of the elephant," Junge says. "So with the loss of this calf, we were able to do a detailed dissection for everybody to learn what we can about the elephant."

And the learning isn’t confined to those in the room.

“In addition, we get lots of research requests. So there’s an ongoing research project looking at some of the infectious diseases of elephants," Junge says. "And they requesting when possible to get tissue samples to try to use for studying these diseases. So we try to meet all the research requests that we can when an animal passes.”

Knives lined on the wall of the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine autopsy room.
Credit Clare Roth / WOSU

After samples are sent to researchers, the zoo animals are sent to crematoriums. Officials from the zoo say they bury the remains but don’t disclose the locations publicly, as some of the animals are endangered and highly trafficked.

The zoo doesn’t hold memorial services for the animals that die, but Junge says that doesn’t mean they aren’t mourned.

“I knew this calf well before she was even born. And then we saw her every day of her life up until the day that she died," Junge says. "So it’s about as close as you can get to an animal. It’s about as much a part of your family as an animal can be.”

Have other questions about animals in Columbus? Ask below for our Curious Cbus series and we may investigate the answer.