CHICAGO — In the span of two weeks, Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago has lost both of its African lions, the longtime male-female pair Zenda and Isis.
The second blow, the death of the female after she failed to recover from a fall into her moat Monday morning, was unexpected, mysterious and especially difficult, zoo staff said.
All that workers really know is that Isis seemed fine in her enclosure when staff checked at 9 a.m. Monday, an hour ahead of opening, and then was next seen half an hour later unresponsive at the bottom of her more-than-15-foot-deep moat, said William Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs.
The design allows a lion to climb back out on the habitat side after a fall, but Isis essentially did not move again during roughly 24 hours of treatment and observation, he said, and the zoo’s veterinary staff concluded the humane option was to put her to sleep Tuesday morning.
“Right now it’s just a tragic accident and we’re trying to make heads or tails of it,” said Zeigler. “It’s been very traumatic having to deal with Zenda and now having to deal with this loss, which was totally unexpected. The animal-care staff is so bonded with their cats, it’s like you with a housecat. It’s been hard for them.”
Zenda, 15, and Isis, 14, had been at the west suburban zoo more than a decade and were often seen grooming each other.
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Staffers who care for the big cats watched Isis closely after her partner was put down Jan. 2, the result of profound age-related deterioration that an autopsy revealed to include inoperable, ruptured discs in his spine, the zoo said.
Unlike her mate, who had declined significantly in recent months, Isis was in very good physical condition for an elderly lion, Zeigler said, and although she did call out more frequently in the days following her mate’s death, she got past that after a few days.
“At a tabloid (newspaper), it would be an anthropomorphic question” about whether the female had somehow given up the will to live or worse, the zoo executive allowed. But nothing in the animal’s typical behavior gave any such indication.
No witness saw or cameras recorded Isis’ fall into the barrier moat, the kind of thing that has happened previously with big cats at the zoo without lasting injury, said Zeigler. Staffers examined the habitat for signs of her possibly chasing a squirrel or raccoon and tumbling in, but all they could find were some claw marks along a side wall.
“We did see some scrapings along the edge. Whether that’s a cause or a reaction to starting to fall in you don’t know,” he said.
A CT scan showed no broken bones in Isis but she did have seizures indicating possible swelling of the brain. Treatment while under sedation yesterday and overnight included attempts to reduce swelling, but when she showed no signs of recovery by about 9:15 Tuesday morning doctors made the decision to, as with her mate almost two weeks prior, euthanize the big cat, said Zeigler.
Isis will be autopsied to determine what injuries stilled her, with results expected within a couple of weeks. But the reason for the precipitating incident will likely remain a mystery.
“That’s just it,” Zeigler said. “We don’t really know what happened.”