Late last week, we said goodbye to Ara, our 33-year-old red ruffed lemur. Based on the information available to us, at the time of her death, she was believed to be the oldest female red ruffed lemur in captivity. During this sad time, we’d like to take a moment to tell you about the tireless efforts of our animal care team as they worked diligently to ensure Ara had the best possible quality of life, through to the end.
Although Ara had been considered geriatric for the last 13 years of her life, her lead keeper, Lauren, tells us it wasn’t until the last seven months or so that she started to see a dramatic decline in the lemur’s health. In October, Ara began showing signs of neurological distress. She had what Lauren describes as “seizure-like episodes.” Due to the fall risk associated with these episodes, our team decided to retire her from the exhibit and moved her into her blockhouse with access to the side yard, where the heights are less extreme.
Ara began receiving an anti-seizure medication three times each day. She continued this medication for several months until she began to refuse it, at which time our team weaned her off the medication and watched her closely for any additional signs of neurological episodes. None were observed until Ara’s last week of life. In addition to this anti-seizure medication, Ara also received painkillers to keep her arthritic body comfortable.
Despite these medical challenges, Lauren says, “She always kept a perky, interested attitude – even as her body started to decline.”
In addition to arthritis and neurological symptoms, like all elderly animals, Ara began to lose weight as she became more fragile. Ara was weighed every other week so Lauren and our vet team could track exactly how much weight she was losing. In addition to her regular diet (where her veggies were steamed to make them easier to eat and the fruit was cut small enough so that her elderly teeth didn’t need to work so hard at chewing), our team blended up her favorite fruits into smoothies on a daily basis.
To help her gain (or at least maintain) her weight, our team also offered her every type of food imaginable, including pancakes, muffins, popsicles, whipped cream, gummy bears, power bars, and baby food. Lauren tells us Ara was initially interested in these new offerings, but stiffly refused them by the next day. Ara’s taste buds changed on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, so food items had to be kept novel and exciting.
Lauren says, “I always joked that she liked her food by the colors: one week, she liked all things blue/black (blackberries, blueberries), and the next, it was everything orange (orange, cantaloupe, peaches). She kept us on our toes, and I frequently requested odd, unusual foods from our commissary to keep her happy.”
Lauren tells us Ara’s care took up the majority of her time during the day. “If I wasn’t preparing her food, I was hand feeding it to her or trying to convince her that her medications were necessary and would make her feel better. She always ate best if she was hand fed – me, a servant for the queen. As animals age, they require more time. I’ve always had a soft spot for the oldies, so it wasn’t a burden to me – more of an honor to be able to take care of such a sassy, friendly, old lady who had great demands.”
Throughout all of this special treatment, it’s important to note that our vet staff, keepers and curators evaluated Ara on a regular basis to ensure everything they did was in the lemur’s best interest. Late last week, after seeing Ara’s health continue to deteriorate, our dedicated team of animal professionals decided it was time to humanely euthanize Ara.
Lauren says, “In the end, her body definitely gave out before her spirit, which always makes a quality of life decision harder. We’re with these animals more than our pets at home sometimes. Blood, sweat and tears go into their care on a routine basis to make sure our animals always have the very best. The hardest decision will always be when to let them go, and it is not taken lightly. In the end, I am so grateful I was able to be there with her, to comfort her when the decision was made to humanely euthanize her.”
“Ara was legendary,” Lauren says. “Everyone will tell you she was full of spunk and personality. When she was on exhibit with the ring tailed lemurs, she could often be seen chasing them and keeping them in line. I hope people were awed by her beauty. Red ruffs are a very rare species of lemur, one of the most endangered in the wild. In captivity, the average life span is 25, but she made it all the way to 33 – that in itself is inspiring to me. Hopefully, she inspired people to care about lemurs and look into how they can help them escape extinction.“
Ara leaves behind her fellow senior lemurs, Jethys, a 26-year-old female red ruffed lemur, and Che, our elderly male mongoose lemur. Lauren says Jethys is going through a mourning period and will be monitored closely. She tells us, “Ara might be gone, but I still have more elderly lemurs to spoil rotten.”