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A tall order: Baby giraffe will be raised by San Diego Zoo, not his mother

A tall order: Baby giraffe will be raised by San Diego Zoo, not his mother
A giraffe calf at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park undergoes a CT scan at the park's Paul Harter Veterinary Medical Center. (Photo courtesy Imal Khelik, San Diego Zoo Safari Park veterinary student)

Days after bumpily arriving into the world at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a giraffe calf who had difficulty nursing is now being raised by the zoo.

For the next six months or so, zoo staff will bottle-feed the male calf with formula devised especially for baby giraffes. The zoo has previously hand-raised baby giraffes, so their needs are known, said Dr. Lauren Howard, associate director of veterinary services at the Safari Park.

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When ready, the calf will be placed with a giraffe herd. That may be back at the Safari Park near Escondido, the zoo’s San Diego location or at another zoo, Howard said.

The as-yet-unnamed calf was born in the open field Jan. 27, in an apparently normal birth. Video indicates that an adult male may have inadvertently knocked the calf to the ground. Whether that fall damaged the calf is unknown, Howard said, but he eventually got the knack of standing and walking.

Zookeepers soon noticed he was spending little time nursing, Howard said. And because the keepers spend the most time observing the giraffes, the veterinary staff took their concerns seriously. It’s an example of how keepers and vets work as a team.

“The keepers out in the field are highly skilled and have seen a lot of babies born,” Howard said. “So I actually rely on them to tell me what's normal, like how often does a giraffe nurse, then, when he's nursing — how long is that nursing bout?

”We've gotten really good at capturing videos and photos and sharing that back and forth between the vets and the keepers. And when there's a flag raised of any kind, then the veterinarians go out and look at the animal.”

So last week, when the veterinarians met with the keepers, they decided to give the calf a quick exam in the field. This was accomplished by briefly distracting the mother.

Results were normal, except for a slightly elevated white blood cell count.

After the exam, keepers reported that the calf was still behaving oddly. The mother, Acacia, appeared to be losing interest in her baby.

“He was doing this weird, head-toss, cough-sneeze thing,” Howard said.

Since sick newborn giraffes can go downhill quickly, the plan was to bring him to the Safari Park’s Paul Harter Veterinary Medical Center for a comprehensive exam.

But the night before the exam, more bad news arrived. Letting the calf stay out in the cold even one night seemed too risky.

“The supervisor got in touch with me to say they’ve been watching him all afternoon and haven’t seen him nurse,” Howard said. “He seems a bit more lethargic and lying down.”

So that evening, the calf was taken by trailer to the veterinary center for a more detailed exam. The mother didn’t appear to show too much concern about the removal, another sign she had lost interest in the calf, Howard said.

It’s easy to misinterpret animal actions through the lens of our human emotions, Howard said. But the general feeling among veterinarians is that when a mother stops being attentive to a baby, it’s because she senses something is wrong with it.

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Images from a recently acquired CT scanner designed for horses revealed inflammation in the calf’s nose and throat, Howard said. The inflammation could have been caused by injury or by an infection. Whatever the cause, it could account for the nursing problems.

The calf was given antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs and kept warm. He accepted the bottle feedings. But while his condition improved, the overnight stay broke the maternal bond, Howard said. Giraffe mothers don’t tolerate more than a brief separation from their calves.

So the calf has a human-centric future for the time being, Howard said. When he gets strong enough, he will be cautiously introduced to other giraffes, so he can eventually be placed back with others of his kind.

The diagnosis would have been impossible until recently; the zoo obtained the CT scanner only about a year and a half ago, Howard said. An ordinary X-ray wouldn’t have revealed the inflammation.

Bradley J. Fikes writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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