An audit released Thursday cleared the Baton Rouge Zoo of wrongdoing in the minutes leading up to the deaths of two giraffes in March, and suggested stress and weather played a role.
Zoo Director Phil Frost requested the audit from the zoo’s peer accrediting agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to “take the opportunity away from the naysayers” who questioned the deaths, he said in a recent interview. The two elderly giraffes that died, Hope and Mopani, were gone within hours of each other as Hope battled an illness and Mopani suffered a fatal fall after being bumped by another of the zoo’s giraffes.
Two giraffes now roam the zoo’s enclosure instead of the previous four. The deaths came at a time of intense scrutiny for the zoo after a number of high-profile animal deaths occurred in a short period. The zoo has also been pitching a $110 million rebuilding campaign that could include a controversial location change.
But the investigation, performed by Birmingham Zoo CEO William Foster and Houston Zoo Vice President of Animal Operations Sharon Joseph, maintains animal care did not contribute to the deaths. They said the giraffes were under extreme stress at the time, and a thunderstorm outdoors only added to it.
“I found no fault with the difficult decisions that were made under a set of unfortunate circumstances that resulted in the death of two geriatric female giraffes,” their investigation reads.
Mopani at age 30 and Hope at age 23 had already lived past the median life expectancies for giraffes, the zoo has maintained. They said Mopani was the sixth-oldest captive giraffe in north America; the AZA’s data for mean life expectancy for female giraffes is 19.5 years.
In the past 10 years, four other giraffes have died at the Baton Rouge Zoo. Three of them — a mother and her two calves — were within one sickly family line. The fourth, unrelated giraffe died after suffering from bladder stones. Zoo Veterinarian Gordon Pirie said the weak family of giraffes shows the importance of having strong breeding and good family lines, because weak mothers tend to bear weak calves.
Zoo authorities say it’s not possible to determine whether the number of deaths at the Baton Rouge Zoo meets a standard of normalcy.
“There is no such thing as normal,” Frost said.
The accrediting agency’s Masai giraffe program leader, Sheri Horiszny, who is also the director of animal care at the Santa Barbara Zoo, said the heights of giraffes make their falls that much more severe.
She said the number of giraffe deaths in recent history in Baton Rouge is not particularly eye-raising.
“Hearing that number, it doesn’t make me want to run over there and find out what they’ve been doing,” Horiszny said.
On the day of the giraffe deaths in March, Hope’s unwell state affected how the other giraffes had to be configured. Keepers found her down in the barn, blocking other giraffes’ access in and out of it.
Zoo staffers cared for her for two hours before deciding to let her rest, but her position complicated where the other giraffes could go. Hope spent two hours alone in a stall while Mopani shared a stall with a male giraffe, Rowan. A younger female giraffe, Rosie, was kept outside of the barn.
They changed configurations again, this time for six hours. Hope, Mopani and Rowan all had stalls to themselves, and Rosie was kept outside.
“The uncommon configuration of stalled giraffes added additional stress to an already stressful situation,” the audit reads.
The weather outside grew stormy with lightning, and zoo staffers decided all of the giraffes needed to be in the barn. They planned to bring Rosie inside and have her share a stall with Mopani, but they had to shift Mopani to Rowan’s stall in order to do so.
Rowan and Mopani had shared a stall that morning and in the past, according to the audit. But she became upset once they entered the stall together.
“One cannot be sure of why she became agitated, though possibly due to the approaching thunderstorm, the unusual routine of the day’s activity, separation visually from her herd mates, Rowan’s return or being stall bound for a prolonged period,” the audit reads.
Mopani paced and circled Rowan, and he responded by bumping into her several times. She kept circling him, he bumped her again and she lost her footing in the slippery barn, where a day’s worth of manure and urine had built up, and crashed down. Zookeepers separated the giraffes immediately and gave Mopani medical care before she died early the next morning.
“I would call it a very freak incident, and I suspect that whatever the bull was doing, he did not intend that to be the consequences,” Horiszny said.
At the same time, Hope showed no signs of recovery. Her quality of life was rapidly degenerating, according to the audit, and zoo officials decided to euthanize her.
“Our goal from the veterinary viewpoint is to keep these animals as healthy and happy as we possibly can,” Pirie said in a recent interview. “And that does not mean we will disregard quality of life over quantity of life, and vice versa.”
Giraffes are among the most popular and common animals at all zoos, officials said. Assistant Zoo Director and General Curator Sam Winslow said they hope to add another to Baton Rouge within the next year, but it will come down to the availability and transportation.
Hope and Mopani were both mothers. Mopani had five calves in her lifetime, while Hope had two. All seven have gone onto other zoos, Baton Rouge zoo staff said.
The audit is the first of two major investigations requested at the Baton Rouge Zoo in the wake of the animal deaths. After a young tiger unexpectedly died last month, the zoo requested an investigation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture into her death. The results of the USDA report are not back yet.
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