Happy lives and the inevitability of death

It is always a happy moment when an animal moves into a forever home, but we know in our hearts that forever doesn’t really mean forever. The Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary provides lifelong sanctuary to non-releasable greater Yellowstone ecosystem wildlife. Just like when we get a new pet, we’re aware from the start that lifetimes do eventually end.

In June of 1994, a logger near Phillipsburg, MT found an elk calf whose mother had been hit by a car. He took the orphan to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and she spent her first winter at their facility in Helena. She was declared healthy but not releasable. The following May, Emily the Rocky Mountain Elk came to The Red Lodge Zoological Society (which would later become the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary) on permanent loan from the State.

When Emily settled in to her new home, the staff knew she was likely to live longer than the expected 10 to 13 year lifespan of a wild elk. At the Sanctuary, she would have adequate food all winter long, she wouldn’t have to fear predators, and a professional staff would be taking care of her every day. Top that off with annual vet visits and a series of enrichment programs designed to keep her physically and mentally stimulated, and you have a recipe for a long and healthy life.

Fast forward to 2018. Emily’s sprightly steps have slowed. Frolicking up the hill has given way to standing quietly next to Speedy the Bison’s fence as they chew their cud together. She’s having a harder and harder time keeping on weight. At 24 years, she’s doubled the lifespan she could have expected in the wild, and it’s definitely starting to show.

  Emily looks toward the bison habitat to see what her buddy, Speedy, is up to.

Emily looks toward the bison habitat to see what her buddy, Speedy, is up to.

The animal care staff discuss Emily’s situation at length and bring the veterinarian out for a consultation. Their decision is heart-wrenching but unanimous: Emily will never survive another winter and it’s unfair to make her try. After a day of treats, head scratches, and tearful goodbyes, her arthritis pains her no more. Her decades of brightening our lives at the Sanctuary are done, though she lives on in the memories of tens of thousands of visitors and the hundreds of staff, board members, and volunteers that have had the privilege of spending time with her.

The decision to bring an animal into a wildlife sanctuary is complex. Staff must weigh the animal’s needs. Not just food and shelter, either. Each species has unique requirements for socialization, habitat design, mental stimulation, stress management, and the ability to perform the ingrained behaviors they are built for. Being a sanctuary for non-releasable animals sometimes means adapting all of those factors to account for the physical or emotional trauma that made the animal non-releasable in the first place.

Every year at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary is a good one, as we watch our visitors marvel at the happy, healthy animals that would have been euthanized had we not been here to offer them a long and fulfilling life.

At the same time, each year at the Sanctuary has those gut-punch moments when the life of one of the residents comes to its inevitable end. This year, in addition to Emily, we’ve had to say farewell to Belle the red fox, Allan the raven, Rudy the mule deer, and Bonnie the coyote. All of them lived longer than they would have in the wild. All of them brought delight to endless streams of visitors. All of them made the Sanctuary a better place for us even as we worked to make it a better place for them.

As we always do, the board and staff of the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary are dealing with the losses and looking forward to what’s coming next. Our expansive new wolf habitat and indoor/outdoor crane habitat projects are in their final stages. The quarantine period for our new raccoon, Cooper, is wrapping up. Rouge, the majestic new ferruginous hawk, is delighting guests. The remodeling of the Education building is starting this winter, which will provide indoor heated habitats for weasels, snakes, and other small local animals.

We have our good days, and we have our bad days. Overall, today is a good day.