Giraffe, Calf Die at Topeka Zoo
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Giraffe, Calf Die at Topeka Zoo

By Phil Anderson,

Fluid on the lungs, a difficult pregnancy and excessive heat were blamed Friday for the death of a giraffe and her unborn calf that had been under medical care the past week at the Topeka Zoo.

The adult giraffe, named B.G., and her unborn calf were found dead in their outdoor exhibit early Friday at the zoo, officials said.

B.G. was 24 years of age. She would have been 25 on Tuesday.

Following a necropsy Friday morning, B.G.'s cause of death was being attributed to pulmonary edema, a condition that caused fluid to gather on the lungs and other parts of the giraffe's body.

Also contributing to the giraffe's death was her otherwise healthy unborn calf, a male, that was upside down in the breech position. Interim zoo veterinarian Joe Kamer said there was no way the calf would have been able to be born naturally in that position.

The unborn calf's size and position also were putting pressure on its mother's diaphragm and blood vessels, contributing to her medical problems, he said.

"We found fluid in the lungs," Kamer said at a news conference at the zoo's Gary Clarke Education Center. "Lots of it."

This week's hot weather, with four consecutive days of 100 degree-plus temperatures, may have contributed to stress the giraffe was experiencing, Kamer said.

Despite efforts this week to induce labor, Kamer said, "no labor had ever started. The baby had never tried to deliver."

B.G., a shortened version of the giraffe's full name of Bug Eyes, had been receiving intensive medical care over the past few days, and Kamer said he was planning to continue treatment Friday.

Kamer praised zoo director Brendan Wiley and other staff members for their extraordinary efforts at keeping B.G. alive and making it possible for her to deliver a healthy calf.
"You always want to make sure you are doing everything you can," Kamer said, "and we did."

A necropsy on the baby giraffe, which was fully developed and weighed about 130 pounds, was to take place Friday afternoon. The baby giraffe showed no signs of deformity.

Wiley said he received an "emotional" call about 7 a.m. from a zoo staffer informing him B.G. had died overnight.

B.G. had been under medical care for the past week after showing signs of stress. Zoo officials noticed about two weeks ago that B.G. was in the early stages of giving birth to a calf fathered by the zoo's 20-year-old male giraffe, Jesse.

Concerns were heightened this week when B.G.'s ears and neck started to droop.

"We had been closely monitoring her the past couple of weeks," Wiley said. "Earlier this week, we saw things turning for the worse."

Late Tuesday, he said, zoo veterinarians had to make a choice — whether to focus on the health of the unborn calf or the health of B.G.

At that point, Wiley said, the decision was made to focus on B.G., under the assumption that if she was to die, there was no guarantee of the healthy delivery of the calf.

Performing a Cesarean-section wasn't an option, based on B.G.'s condition, the largeness of the calf and the nature of the surgery, he said.

B.G. was given medications to help reduce fluid on her lungs and to increase urine output, Wiley said.

Efforts were made to induce labor Tuesday and Wednesday. Zoo officials said the longer B.G. went without giving birth, the more concern there was for her health.

By Thursday, B.G. showed enough improvement to be placed in a giraffe restraint. A thorough medical examination was performed Thursday, and blood tests were taken, the results of which were due Friday morning.

B.G. had been on a 24-hour watch for several days before zoo officials decided to pull back Thursday night.

Wiley said zoo veterinarians and staff members "tried to do what we could to make her comfortable" and opted to give B.G. some solitude late Thursday in hopes that would enhance her chances to give birth.

"Knowing there was nothing else we could do," Wiley said, "we decided to back off in hopes that would add to her comfort level and that she would go into labor."

Wiley said giraffes typically give birth in zoos when they are left alone.

As he put it, "Typically, when a giraffe is born, you come in and find it in the morning."

B.G. was last seen alive at 11:45 p.m. Thursday and was alone at the time of her death, Wiley said. She was found Friday morning by zoo staff members. There was no indication she had gone into labor.

The bodies are to be cremated, Wiley said.

The giraffe's death was taking a toll on zoo staff members, Wiley said, who had put in a "lot of emotional investment" in seeing B.G. return to health and give birth to a healthy calf.

Wiley, who became zoo director May 24, said tissue samples from the necropsies of B.G. and her calf would be sent to different research facilities.

Wiley said though Friday was a sad day, it also showed a zoo that was committed to being "honest and real," moving toward a "different place" where the community could be proud of the facility.

"There have been plenty of times in my life where it's been, 'What if? — What if I'd done this, or what if I'd done that?' " Wiley said. "That feeling is not here. We threw everything we had at this situation."

Giraffes have a gestation period of approximately 15 months. The average life expectancy for giraffes is between 20 and 30 years.

In January 2007, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums had recommended not breeding the Topeka zoo's aging giraffes, including Dolly and B.G. Former zoo director Mike Coker announced both giraffes were being retired from breeding "due to their advancing age."

However, Coker sought and received an exception to the AZA recommendation in 2008.

Coker, who left the zoo in December amid the facility's problems with federal inspectors and its own accrediting agency, notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 2009 that Dolly was pregnant.

Dolly, 25, who had given birth to a deformed calf in 2006, gave birth July 11 to Hope, another calf with the same deformity.

Dolly's previous calf, also suffering from a congenital hoof deformity, had to be euthanized at age 7 months in April 2006.

Regardless of how B.G.'s pregnancy turned out, Wiley said, the decision already had been made by zoo officials not to breed the two aging female giraffes again.

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