Fresno Chaffee Zoo baby giraffe died from neck injury

Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s mother and baby giraffe soon after the calf’s birth Sept. 9, 2015.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s mother and baby giraffe soon after the calf’s birth Sept. 9, 2015. Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The baby giraffe who died at Fresno Chaffee Zoo during a VIP event for the new 13-acre African Adventure exhibit on Oct. 11 suffered “neck trauma” after it was unable to slow down and ran into a single, metal wire barrier near the edge of the enclosure, the zoo’s director said.

The giraffe was not tangled in the wire when zookeepers arrived to render aid, said Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee’s director. The wire is designed to protect smaller animals when they are in the way of larger animals as they run. Tests from a necropsy on the giraffe are not yet complete, he said.

An incident similar to last week’s occurred in Dallas in July. Giraffes also have died at zoos after getting stuck in trees and panicking, accidentally being stepped on by a parent, fighting with each other, falling over, even getting struck by lightning, as happened at a zoo in Florida.

Last year, a Fresno Chaffee giraffe died after becoming tangled in a feeding enrichment device in its sleeping quarters. In that case, Barton said, the giraffe had used the enrichment feeder for two years when it asphyxiated itself.

Giraffe deaths gain attention because they are popular, charismatic animals, zoo officials say. Such deaths lead animal activist groups to call for an end to keeping creatures in captivity and in zoo-breeding programs. But behaviors that occur in zoos happen in the wild, too, sometimes with similar deadly results. Predators also are lurking out in wild.

Animal deaths are painful for zookeepers, too, who are constantly discussing ways to improve care.

“Sometimes animals will surprise us in wonderful ways, but sometimes they’ll surprise us in heartbreaking ways,” Barton said.

It was another of those unusual and heartbreaking moments that led to the death of the young giraffe last week.

“A number of animals all moved into that (area), one started running and there was built-up excitement,” he said. “It seemed playful and then they got faster and faster.”

He said the baby giraffe, about 4 weeks old, was among the running group.

“The youngster was not as graceful and ran into the wire, got tangled up, injured his neck and then fell loose,” Barton said.

The wire barrier was strung up in a manner similar to the other giraffe enclosure in the older part of the zoo, he said. It has now been removed. The wire was there to allow smaller animals to run under it for safety during such commotion.

“We had seen him touch (the wire) before without a problem,” Barton said.

When the accident occurred, the giraffes had been on the new exhibit site for a few weeks, so Oct. 11 was not the first time the giraffes or other animals were in the new area. The exhibit where the giraffe and other animals roam is 3 acres and can be converted to 4 acres.

“We knew about (the Dallas incident) and we were thoughtful about it and still the giraffe managed that,” Barton said.

Giraffes, Barton said, have a habit of finding “unusual ways to get in trouble.”

Critics assail zoo

Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals criticized Fresno Chaffee Zoo officials, describing the recent VIP event as “a raucous party right next to a group of nervous prey animals.”

The animal-welfare advocates also said the zoo’s top priority was donors, not animals, suggesting that other baby giraffes have broken their necks on enclosure walls and criticizing the zoo’s enclosure as too small.

The Sunday evening event played host to 328 people spread throughout the 13-acre portion of the zoo, andofficials said there was nothing raucous about it.

Fresno Chaffee staff also were criticized for taking several minutes to reach the giraffe. But as the calf lay mortally wounded, zookeepers were working to return other animals inside their holding areas.

Barton said he was impressed by the work of zoo employees under difficult circumstances.

And, the following day, given an opportunity to take time off, all the employees returned to work, he said.

Better off in zoos?

For people who have followed giraffes for years, the behavior displayed by the calf was natural.

Giraffes “are wired to run away” with the other species in the Fresno zoo exhibit, said Sheri Horiszny, the Masai giraffe species survival plan coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Santa Barbara Zoo’s director of animal care.

“It sounded like some other species were running and others started running and that led to an unfortunate accident,” she said. “It sounds like the calf didn’t put on the brakes.”

Horiszny said incidents like this occur in the wild, and giraffes break legs or run into a tree.

Since giraffes are prey animals, their flight instinct doesn’t always serve them with happy endings, she said.

“It’s true in the wild and it’s true in much larger spaces,” she said.

A study that compares giraffes in the wild with those in captivity shows that giraffes in zoos fare much better. There are about 80,000 giraffes in Africa, their numbers dwindling from 140,000 about 15 years ago because of destruction of their habitation and predation.

First-year infant mortality rates in zoos are about 25 percent, according to the Association of Zoos’ genealogy records, which cover 560 giraffes in just over 100 zoos, Horiszny said.

A study by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which examined populations of Masai giraffes, found that 20 percent died in their first month of life in the wild, and 50 percent died within six months in the wild. After one year, 60 percent of calves had died, Horiszny said.

Of 114 giraffes born in 2013 and 2014 in AZA-accredited institutions in North America, 25 died in the first year, about 22 percent. Of those, 13 were still births, the records show.

“It shows that they are more likely to die if they are not in zoos,” she said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin