The Columbus Zoo's Giraffe Problem

Kathy Lynn Gray
Ubumwe, the Masai giraffe calf that died in November

When Masai giraffes at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium lope across the spacious Heart of Africa exhibit, visitors ooh and aah at the spectacle. Their keepers, meanwhile, stare anxiously and send up a quick prayer: Please let them stay upright!

Giraffes are quite fragile despite their size, speed and power, says Lewis Greene, the zoo’s senior vice president of animal care and conservation. “Physiologically, they are so unique, but it comes at a cost. There are so many things that can go wrong.”

Last year, many things did.

In mid-November, a seemingly healthy giraffe calf named Ubumwe, the first born at the zoo in two decades, died after a viral illness swept through her body just 18 days after birth. Then, in early December, a second giraffe calf was stillborn and could not be delivered until veterinarians performed an emergency cesarian section on its mother, Cami.

The calf was seriously deformed, Greene says, and if veterinarians had left it in the womb, Cami would have died too. Five days later, she died anyway, from an infection brought on by the surgery.

At a zoo known for successful breeding, the sudden and unexpected loss of three animals from a threatened species hit hard. Zoo staff began planning for the births two years ago, says Doug Warmolts, vice president of animal care. “There’s nothing else we could have done to prepare.”

Giraffe calves have a high mortality rate: 50 percent die in the wild, and 25 percent die in captivity. Zoo veterinarian Priya Bapodra-Villaverde says newborns have little immunity until they’ve nursed for several weeks. They’re among the more challenging species to care for, Greene says, in part because of their size, long necks and thin legs.

Still, Bapodra-Villaverde says it’s important to have healthy populations of giraffes at zoos. Visitors learn about their vulnerability, and zookeepers gain knowledge about their habits and health that help support their wild brethren. The Columbus Zoo had no giraffes at all between 2005, when the Asia Quest exhibit was being built, and 2014, when the Heart of Africa exhibit opened. Now there’s a herd of 14.

Compounding the zoo’s giraffe fatalities, Ellie, a 3-week-old Asian elephant calf, died in late December, and an unnamed 2-month-old giraffe died in September at The Wilds, the zoo’s conservation center southeast of Columbus. Ellie was the first elephant born at the zoo in a decade and had appeared healthy until hours before septic shock killed her.

In the cases of Ubumwe and Ellie, the zoo documented their movements 24 hours a day, says Patty Peters, vice president of community relations. The elephant’s death, which Peters called “stunning” for its rapidity, was not related to the giraffe deaths in any way, she says.

Greene calls it “a run of bad luck.” It’s happened before. In 2005, two giraffes and two zebras died within weeks of each other.

“If you have 10,000 animals, there’s a good chance you’re going to have some die every week,” Greene says. “My point is: The only animal I know who lives forever is Mickey.”

Warmolts says the recent deaths won’t stop the zoo from breeding animals if the national Species Survival Plan with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends it. “We’re always talking about the next pregnancies,” he says. “We’re always hopeful.”


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