This article was originally published June 4, 2017.
Like a kidney donation from a car accident victim or the brain of a football player given for concussion research, death sometimes has a silver lining.
The same is true at the zoo.
When animals die at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, some begin a legacy after life. Animal remains can help paleontologists confirm the bones of a newly discovered species and they can help scientists battle diseases in wild populations.
Zoo veterinarians and zookeepers can learn how to provide better care to a breed’s surviving zoo family. And educators can use skeletons and hides to inspire a love and understanding of animals.
“It’s one thing for people to see a tiger and talk about tigers, but if they can touch a pelt, that’s going to add to their emotional response and hopefully their connection to that species,” said Dr. Doug Armstrong, the zoo’s director of animal health.
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When an animal dies, zoos have several options.
Burial: Usually, this happens only when there’s no scientific or educational demand for the animal or when, logistically, it’s too big to move. Those animals are buried on zoo grounds.
Feeding: Zoos are legally allowed to use their animals as food. However, Omaha’s zoo has a policy to not do so.
Educational use at the zoo: Docents carry around tiger pelts and other animal skins to give zoo visitors a hands-on experience learning about the animals.
Scientific study: In many cases, high-demand deceased animals are shipped to labs investigating diseases in particular species.
Donation: Often institutions will ask for particular specimens to display at museums or for other uses, like teaching students anatomy.
Nearly every animal that dies at the zoo is given an animal autopsy — a necropsy. It can show cause of death, what health conditions it had, how the zoo’s treatments were working and a slew of other details that can translate to real change.
Take elephants, for example.
For years elephant exhibits had concrete floors, which were easier to disinfect. Over the years, zoo necropsies revealed that the concrete surfaces were contributing to degenerative joint problems in heavy animals.
“We took that information and applied it in designing our facilities to improve welfare for the animals,” Armstrong said.
Today, instead of concrete, elephants and rhinos walk on pits of sand several feet deep. Likewise, giraffes tread on thick piles of mulch.
Armstrong said necropsies have helped lead to all kinds of discoveries, such as West Nile virus in wild birds, canine distemper in wild tigers and fibrosing cardiomyopathy in gorillas.
Because of this, necropsies are performed on 99 percent of the Omaha zoo’s dead animals. Right now the zoo’s veterinary staff performs necropsies, but the zoo plans to hire a pathologist to focus primarily on collecting new information from dead animals.
When the zoo fills that position it will be one of only a handful of American zoos to have that kind of specialist, Armstrong said. The pathologist will monitor living animals receiving medical care and conduct thorough necropsies after death to better understand what diseases ail the zoo’s population and what Omaha and zoos around the world can do to help.
“If there’s crisis somewhere, we would make them available to provide their expertise to go solve that problem,” Armstrong said.
Hiring a pathologist allows the zoo to do more on-site research, but that scientist will be far from the only one benefiting from the zoo’s animal collection.
Omaha’s zoo has a long-standing relationship with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to donate in-demand animals for research or display.
Trish Freeman, professor and curator emeritus with UNL’s School of Natural Resources and the University of Nebraska State Museum, said the animals have been extraordinarily helpful in the university’s research.
“It’s essentially like adding rare books to a library,” she said.
One recent addition to the collection: a rare Japanese giant salamander that died at the zoo in January.
Paleontologists have discovered bones from 13 and 18 million years ago in Nebraska that they believe belonged to a North American giant salamander. By comparing the skeleton of the zoo’s Japanese salamander with the recently discovered bone fragments, scientists can better determine if the two are related.
“It most likely is not the same species,” Freeman said, “but in fossils, the genus is the next best thing.”
Freeman said the museum has hundreds of specimens from zoos in Omaha and Lincoln. They’ve helped lead to discoveries in all sorts of vertebrates, including tapirs and fossas.
As wild populations continue to shrink, specimens of endangered species that zoos share with the scientific community become increasingly vital.
“It won’t be long before all the big cats or elephants in the wild are gone,” Freeman said. “You can still get DNA from this material.
“I just hate to see some of this stuff thrown out.”
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The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium introduced a week-old female giraffe on March 23, 2012. The calf was the first born at Omaha's zoo since 2007 but the 29th overall since 1979. Giraffe calves are usually six feet tall and 150 pounds at birth. Within an hour of birth, calves are usually up and nursing.
A vampire bat is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Oct. 29, 2013. The zoo teamed up with Iowa State University to find the best food for vampire bats, which each need about 2 tablespoons of blood a day.
An African lion rests at the Henry Doorly Zoo on a hot summer day in July 1971.
Five baby rockhopper penguin chicks were on display at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014.
An emperor angelfish swims at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
Twin white-handed gibbons sit in their mother's lap on Friday, June 10, 2011, in the Henry Doorly Zoo's Lied Jungle. The rare twins were born on April 13, 2011.
Nicole Linafelter feeds a sleepy African lion cub at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday, Jan. 4, 2012. The runt of the litter, the cub had been removed from her mother's care, and Linafelter, a veterinary technician, was one of the people caring for the then-week-old cub.
Little Joe, a 450-pound lion, is seen on Aug. 9, 1950. Sold to Omaha Parks and Recreation by Council Bluffs poundmaster Chris Christensen, Little Joe didn't like his cage. He lunged at passers-by, sweeping his paw at the shadows of onlookers.
Incoming first-graders at Bancroft Elementary and zoo day camp students got a sneak peek at the new Zoo Academy and Children's Adventure Trails at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on June 29, 2017.
Elephants make their public debut at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Wednesday, April 6, 2016.
Gail Yanney and Dr. Lee Simmons have their hands full while holding a python at at zoo benefit. Guests took turns petting the python during the Zoofari VII Fundraiser at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Sept. 11, 1989.
Black-handed spider monkeys climb in their habitat at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014.
Two red-fronted macaws fly on Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the opening of the Holland Meadowlark Amphitheater at the Henry Doorly Zoo. The area will be used for live bird shows, held three times a day and featuring 15 species of birds.
In the Desert Dome, Zachery Torres, a sophomore at Omaha South High School, cleans the glass around the turkey vulture exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.
A klipspringer hangs out in its enclosure at the Henry Doorly Zoo's new African Grasslands exhibit on Friday, May 27, 2016.
Spider monkeys rest in the lagoon area at the Henry Doorly Zoo's new African Grasslands exhibit on Friday, May 27, 2016.
A group of female impala are seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Lions Johnny and Sandy are seen on Aug. 12, 1965. The lions were featured in the Zoo's Who that year.
An Amur tiger cub shows the start of his fangs on Aug. 18, 2016, at the Henry Doorly Zoo. The cubs were vaccinated and chipped during their debut that morning.
A pair of vampire bats are seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium on Oct. 29, 2013. The zoo teamed up with Iowa State University to find the best food for vampire bats, which each need about 2 tablespoons of blood a day.
Mfisha nuzzles one of her baby lion cubs at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday, March 29, 2013.
W.W. Laird says a final goodbye to a pair of lion cubs on Sept. 21, 1967. When the Clyde Brothers Circus came to Hastings, W.W. Laird, a friend of circus man Howarad Suesz, noticed a sick lion. She took it to the vet, but the animal died. Suesz asked Laird to take the 5-week-old lion cubs, Freckles and Speckles, to make sure they didn't get sick. The cubs became too large to be in the Lairds' home, so Laird donated the cats, then 4 1/2 months old, to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Nicole Linafelter holds a sleepy African lion cub at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Friday, Jan. 4, 2012. The runt of the litter, the cub had been removed from her mother's care, and Linafelter, a veterinary technician, was one of the people caring for the then-week-old cub.
A male African lion is seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
A klipspringer calf roams its new home at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium's Desert Dome on Monday, March 25, 2013.
A white-handed gibbon baby peeks out at its surroundings while its mom swings along at the Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Oct. 24, 2003. The baby was born Sunday, October 5. Gibbons, the smallest of the apes, live in small family groups consisting of the mated pair and their immature offspring.
Zoo visitors crowd around an exhibit to see a baby gorilla at the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1996.
Sepilok, a Bornean orangutan, holds her baby at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
Swans swim through the steam rising off their heated pond at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Dec. 15, 2009.
A lined day gecko sits on a branch in the new Madagascar exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo on April 29, 2010.
A female Amur tiger cub, born June 22, 2010, is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Aug. 20, 2010.
A baby male Francois langur, born August 11, 2010, is seen on Oct. 15, 2010, at the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Matt Simon holds up his 2-year-old son, Simon, to get a better view of Wgasa, a Bornean orangutan, as he enjoys a Valentine's Day treat at the Henry Doorly Zoo Tuesday Feb. 14, 2012. Zoo employees put treats out for the animals, including heart-shaped frozen Kool-Aid.
Fish swim at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
When Penelope, a pink Yorkshire hog, takes a dip in the water tank at the Henry Doorly Zoo, there's no doubt that the other animals have to wait their turn. Watching an impatient Rasputin the goat are Mr. and Mrs. Jeome Paulsen and their 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, in August of 1969.
West Coast sea nettles float in the water at the new Ocean Drifters exhibit, which features five species of jellyfish, at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
Penguins jump in and out of the water at the redesigned and newly renovated Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo on March 26, 2012.
Preston, an Amur leopard, shows his fangs while in his exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Oct. 19, 2012.
A female Amur tiger, born June 22, 2010, tries to sneak up on her mother Tiksi at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Aug. 20, 2010.
A pygmy hippopotamus calf, born Feb. 22, 2013, is seen with its mother in the Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday April 18, 2013.
A fossa pup does target training with Ryan Sears, supervisor at Expedition Madagascar, at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday April 25, 2013.
Chimps Tamba, left, and Pedro are seen at the zoo in 1959. Pedro was purchased from the Detroit Zoo as a mate for Tamba in 1958. The mischievous chimps got on well; the two were known to break into cages and let the other monkeys out.
A mountain chicken frog is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
A young gray tree frog, native to Omaha, is shown at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
An adult male South African bullfrog is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
Casey the gorilla is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1974.
Macaws perch on branches after feeding on Jan. 29, 2011, as thousands of people took advantage of the Henry Doorly Zoo's Community Free Day.
Sam the giraffe is seen at the Henry Doorly Zoo on July 29, 2008.
A female sea lion touches noses with a pup in the Sea Lion Pavilion at the Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday, July 2, 2015. Two sea lion pups were born June 6 and June 8.
Dr. Lee Simmons and zoo workers unload a crate holding one of the new tigers brought to the Henry Doorly Zoo for the white tiger breeding program in August of 1978.
A meerkat is seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Two western diamond-backed rattlesnakes are seen inside Rattlesnake Canyon, a $125,000 new addition inside the Desert Dome, on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Rattlesnake Canyon is the home of 13 animals, including eight species of lizards and two species of snakes.
This photo, published in The World-Herald in 1980, was accompanied by the following caption: "The female gorillas have joined the corps of TV widows. Like a husband intent on boob-tube football, Casey, patriarch at the Henry Doorly Zoo, studies the sitcoms and soap operas on a television outside of his cage. It's part of an experiment, a zoo spokesman said. If the Nielsen ratings people called Casey, the would find he likes to see women, the 'Flinstones' and any other kind of action, a staff member said."
An Egyptian goose is seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
Zebras are seen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
Marina, a white rhino, walks in a pen at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
Dr. Lee Simmons is seen with a Siberian tiger named Nikolai in March of 1977. The tiger was a longtime loan from the Forest Park Zoo in St. Louis.