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Paying Homage to Marta, Queen of Chicago’s Lion House

By Jordan Schaul

In November, my colleague and friend Anthony Nielsen, a head carnivore keeper at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, graciously offered me, my sister and my four-year-old niece a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo’s famed Lion House.

On prior visits to the Lincoln Park Zoo, I always visited the Kovler Lion House, a historical landmark in its own right. I always thought that the building’s feline residents were deserving of some kind of entitlement by mere association with the regal edifice at the world renowned zoological park.

Sadly, it would be the first and last time we met “The Queen.”

Marta 1.jpg

Lincoln Park Zoo animal care staff euthanized Marta, a geriatric female leopard, because her progressively deteriorating kidney function was compromising her quality of life.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

Marta, an adopted melanistic leopard, was the first to greet us as we walked behind the big cat exhibits. Anthony called for her, and she suddenly appeared before us. As he shared Marta’s story, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was remarkable, even if she had not been a stand-out for longevity. There was something about her which in retrospect explains much about her nickname.

When I learned of her passing this week, I knew exactly who the Chicago-area newspapers were talking about. Every animal ambassador is special, but some individuals are more remarkable than others, and not just to the people who work with them day in and day out.

Lincoln Park’s Zoological Manager, Mark Kamhout reflects that, “Marta was known by many guests of Lincoln Park Zoo and was a wonderful, playful and very gentle cat. Despite being one of the oldest cats at the Lion House, Marta always was very engaging with people and especially enjoyed being scratched by her keepers with either a long handled brush or cardboard tube.”

Geriatric Animals in Zoos

There are a lot of geriatric animals in North American zoos. The irony was that my last visit to Chicago was for a conference on geriatric care of humans. I was invited to contribute some of my background working with an aging population of zoo animals and had coincidentally just met Marta.

The attendees at the conference were most impressed with the level of thought that goes in to caring for geriatric animals kept in captivity. Marta was a recipient of medical intervention on several occasions, not unlike the case for so many older animals that well exceed their expected age in the wild. Sometimes they reach over twice the expected age of their wild counterparts.

In Marta’s case she exceeded her expected lifespan by about five years. Cats can survive for several years with renal failure, but as with Marta, there is no cure and she ultimately succumbed to the advanced stages of kidney disease. A difficult decision to euthanize her was agreed upon.

I extend my condolences to Marta’s caretakers and the patrons of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Marta 2.jpg

Marta was 20 years old and lived at Lincoln Park Zoo nearly her entire life. She was brought to the zoo in 1992 after wildlife officials confiscated her from being kept illegally in a private home. The median life expectancy of leopards in zoos is approximately 14 years, according to Lincoln Park Zoo.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo 

Challenges zoo animals face with aging (provided by the San Francisco Zoo):

  • Arthritis
  • Kidney disease/failure
  • Liver disease/failure
  • Heart disease/failure
  • Dementia
  • Cancer
  • Geriatric muscle wasting
  • Cataracts/blindness
  • Dental disease/tooth loss

Jordan-Schaul.jpg

Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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