When the first group of flamingos arrived at Riverbanks Zoo in 1973, the keepers had no idea what to do with them.
Something they did must have worked because one of those Caribbean flamingos ended up being the last of the original Riverbanks animals to die. The zoo announced the death of the bird on Thursday.
“It’s always hard to lose a member of our animal collection, especially one that has been with us since Day One,” said Satch Krantz, CEO of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden.
The life expectancy of the Chilean species of flamingo is 33 years, but there aren’t good data on the life expectancy of the Caribbean version of the species, according to Riverbanks.
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There’s no way to know exactly how old the Riverbanks flamingo was. The zoo’s first shipment of a dozen or so flamingos was caught in the wild and arrived at the zoo as adults, said Bob Seibels, a former Riverbanks curator of birds and one of the original employees.
“None of us had ever dealt with flamingos before,” Seibels said, “so we had to learn on the fly.”
They quickly discovered the birds, who spent their formative years on wide open mud flats, had trouble maneuvering over relatively small ledges in the original display area. And their sensitive feet would be worn sore from the rough gunite rocks in the exhibit. Keepers rearranged the exhibit to cut out ledges and spread a layer of mud in the water to reduce wear and tear on flamingo feet.
Seibels wasn’t surprised a flamingo was the last of the original animals. “They’re tough customers once they get settled in,” he said.
Only five of Riverbanks’ original animals made it to the April 25, 2004, party marking the 30th anniversary of the zoo’s opening. That list included two female flamingos, a male siamang named Solo, a male hippopotamus named Montgomery and a male sloth named Phil.
The zoo didn’t have a practice of naming its flamingos, who were identified by numbers on tabs clipped to their legs. The keepers did get to know the physical characteristics of the various birds, but they didn’t showcase personalities like toucans or some of the other birds, Seibels said.
The last of the original flamingos was notable not only for her longevity but for her vitality. She hatched her last chick in 2009.