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Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium leaders address animal deaths over past 7 months, bring in grief counselors for staff

Pittsburgh Zoo leaders address recent deaths
Pittsburgh Zoo leaders address recent deaths 02:19

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- The recent deaths of multiple animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium have been very difficult for the staff, leaders at the zoo said at a Monday news conference.

Zoo president and CEO Dr. Jeremy Goodman addressed the recent deaths of five of their most beloved and "charismatic" animals on Monday morning. He said it has been a very emotional time at the zoo itself as well as their International Conservation Center in Somerset County.

"We're really experiencing profound sadness at this moment," Goodman said. "Our staff's wellbeing is one of the things we're most concerned with right now."

Leaders and management have brought in grief counselors for the staff, Goodman said. He added that the staff remains "100% dedicated to the wellbeing of animals."

Dr. Goodman said the zoo loses about 15 to 25 mammals a year. There are more than 8,000 animals in the zoo. Zoo leadership said they have the oldest living male northern sea otter in the country and the polar bear is the second oldest living in human care.

Goodman also said he is committed to not only excellence in animal welfare at the zoo, but also "full transparency" to the board, the staff and the community. That includes now announcing the deaths of their animals.

"Zoo life mirrors human life in a lot of ways – we celebrate births, we celebrate milestones and we grieve when someone dies," Dr. Goodman said. "Historically, here at the Pittsburgh Zoo, we've celebrated births and milestones together with everybody. But sharing out deaths and tragedies is something very new for our zoo, quite honestly. It's not something that we've done historically before; it's not something that we've shared with the media and the general public; it's something that not only sharing that an animal has passed but the full transparency of the circumstances of the animal's passing. It's something that's very new to a lot of people and having not heard it before is something that can generate the questions of what's going on."

Dr. Goodman said protocols have not changed and added that the zoo will still hold itself accountable for animal health and safety.

"The numbers are nothing to be alarmed about," Goodman said. "We have not changed anything. The care our animals get is still top-notch." 

Goodman says the zoo's death numbers are in line with national averages. Albeit it's unusual to see a cluster, it's just a tragic situation. Kovu, Mrithi and Hawk were all older, with the latter two dying while they were put under to diagnose the problem.

"Oftentimes that is the only way we can get our hands on them to diagnose things, to do a physical exam," Dr. Goodman

Animal deaths at the zoo

The latest death of Seahawk, the 18-year-old sea lion, happened a little over a week ago. 

Other recent animal deaths include Tsuni the elephant calf, Mrithi the gorilla, Kovu the red panda, and Kit the lion. 


As for the cluster of deaths, Dr. Goodman said it's unusual but there is no connection.

Three of the five deaths were animals the zoo considered geriatric - those included the sea lion, red panda, and gorilla. The elephant and lion were younger.

But the elephant died of a disease all elephants are born with, like chickenpox in humans. If contracted, it has an 85% mortality rate.

The gorilla and sea lion were having health issues and put under anesthesia. Each died while under to find their medical issue. The zoo stresses this is how they have to do medical procedures for animals to keep everyone safe.

"You never know with these wild and exotic animals what particular drug or medication that they might have a reaction to," Dr. Goodman said. "Like with people, it can be very safe but someone may have a reaction to it. Those can be fatal. We do quite a lot of anesthetic procedures a year."

According to the zoo, about 125 to 175 anesthetic procedures are done a year and they have about 1 to 2 complications each year.
The zoo says they reviewed every medical procedure and found no human error in any of them.

The status of the zoo's accreditation

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums Accreditation is viewed as the gold standard for zoos across the world, ensuring that animals and visitors are safe and treated well.   

The Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium left the program in 2015 over its elephant handling policy and has been trying to regain its AZA status since 2021. 

The head of the AZA said that so far, there does not appear to be any connection between all of the deaths and they're not expected to impact the zoo's path back to accreditation. 

As the zoo is working to get back its accreditation, these losses are not expected to impact it. The zoo wants visitors to understand their staff cares for each animal and mourns each loss.

"We wanted transparency, but transparency without context is very difficult and can lead to some false assumptions," Goodman said.

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