Medical and Husbandry Risk Management in Giraffes: Updates on Improving Giraffe Welfare
Laurie J. Gage, DVM, DACZM
From January 2011 through March 2013, there have been at least 41 giraffe deaths in the United States and Canada, 21 of which appeared to have been preventable. Giraffes are intolerant of cold and lack the ability to insulate themselves against cold weather the way other species of hoofed stock do by growing a thick coat or depositing fat. Damp weather and inadequate diets may exacerbate the problem.1 Cold-related deaths were the most common preventable problem during this 2-yr period. There were ten or more deaths related to cold conditions or cold stress combined with feeding an inadequate diet. Many cold-related deaths occurred during a cold front in the more temperate regions of the southeastern and western United States. Insulated barns with a heat source should be available to all captive giraffes housed in areas where ambient temperatures below 50°F (10°C) might occur, however rare that might be.
There were eight exhibit or housing/husbandry-related deaths during this time period. Two were associated with entanglement, one where the ossicones were thought to have been entangled in the hotwire lining a pasture fence and the other where the giraffe put its head through the triangular support elements supporting a shade structure. Four giraffes died in barn fires. One slipped on ice in the exhibit and died shortly thereafter. One keeper fed oleander to the giraffe causing a death. Keepers and management staff should scrutinize all areas giraffes have access to, including areas outside of the enclosure that a giraffe might reach. Any opening a giraffe could put its head through is a potential hazard. All ropes and wires within reach of a giraffe should be carefully evaluated to ensure entrapment is not possible. Grass growing along fence lines where the fencing is constructed of materials with openings large enough for an ossicone to protrude (such as livestock wire fencing) should be killed or removed to eliminate the attraction. All heating elements should be checked routinely to ensure they are working, and are clean and free of flammable materials nearby such as nests. They must be installed and maintained properly.
Anesthesia is necessary for certain surgical procedures and one giraffe during this time period died as a result of an anesthesia required for a necessary course of action. However, there were three anesthetic-related deaths for foot trim procedures. Giraffes have been trained to allow routine foot trims and other basic medical behaviors. Applying training-based methods to manage giraffes rather than anesthetizing them for similar procedures may save lives.
Solving thermoregulation-related problems using appropriate housing and inclement weather turn-out protocols, scrutinizing exhibits and any area a giraffe could reach for entrapment hazards, adequate keeper training, using training techniques to deal with overgrown hooves, and ensuring the specific nutritional requirements of giraffes are met would help to improve their quality of life and may help to decrease the alarming mortality rate seen in recent years.1,2
1. Potter, J.S., and M. Clauss. 2005. Mortality of captive giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) associated with serous fat atrophy: a review of five cases at Auckland Zoo. J Zoo and Wildlife Med. 36(2):301–307.
2. Valdes, E.V. and M. Schlegel. Advances in giraffe nutrition. In Fowler, M.E., and R.E. (eds.). Zoo and Wildlife Medicine. 7th ed. St. Louis, Missouri. 2012. Elsevier. pp 612–618.