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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 1:44 pm | Fair 66º

 
 
 
 

Santa Barbara Zoo Staff Awaiting Arrival of Baby Masai Giraffes

Audrey and Betty Lou are due soon to deliver calves sired by Michael, brought in from Canada for breeding purposes

Two of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Masai giraffes will give birth any day now, all part of the staff’s plan to start breeding more of these genetically vulnerable giraffes.

Audrey and Betty Lou, both 12 feet tall and 5 years old, are almost 15 months pregnant with their calves sired by Michael, 6, who came to the zoo from Canada last January. These giraffes carry one calf at a time, and it’s difficult to tell they’re mothers-to-be — one of their survival adaptations.

“You don’t want to run around looking pregnant in the wild,” said Sheri Horiszny, the zoo’s director of animal programs.

It’s also the reason the zoo got such a big surprise in January 2011 when Audrey, recently acquired from the Los Angeles Zoo, gave birth in the middle of the night to a male calf without anyone knowing she was pregnant. The calf, Daniel, died last year after being anesthetized for dental jaw surgery.

Zoo staff have built a fence dividing the giraffe pen so they can be separated in the event one of the mothers is overprotective or aggressive, or Michael is aggressive. They’ve also added additional padding and hay to the barn, installed webcams so they can monitor the giraffes for signs of labor, and created medical plans in the event they will have to intervene in the births or hand-rear the calves. Ideally, the mothers will be able to give birth and raise their calves on their own, according to Horiszny.

“In a perfect world, we’ll just watch and cheer,” she said.

The giraffes have already shown all kinds of signs that they’re close to delivering, and senior mammal keeper Wendy Anderson said she’s even seen contractions.

There are a lot of questions about the birthing and caring process, Horiszny said, since a lot depends on the giraffes’ individual personalities.

Audrey — who is always eager to come over to the feeding platform and eat heads of lettuce from zoo visitors and staff — was hand-reared and is more easygoing with people and other giraffes, her keepers say, while Betty Lou was parent-raised and is more high-strung and standoffish.

Betty Lou’s mother was very protective and aggressive toward others when she had calves, so the fence built for Michael may be used to separate Betty Lou from the other giraffes. Anderson said Michael was easygoing and gentle when introduced to calves in a previous zoo.

The calves will be about 5 feet 9 inches tall, and they average about 125 pounds.

The Santa Barbara Zoo's senior mammal keeper, Wendy Anderson, feeds 6-year-old Masai giraffe Michael. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)
The Santa Barbara Zoo’s senior mammal keeper, Wendy Anderson, feeds 6-year-old Masai giraffe Michael. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“They have to be almost 6 feet tall to reach the milk,” Horiszny said. “We’re just really excited to have a calf again; maybe it will help us get past (losing) Daniel.”

The calves will be the first Masai giraffes to be born at the Santa Barbara Zoo, and the first calves since Daniel. Before him, there weren’t any giraffe calves born at the zoo for about 10 years, she said.

Horiszny worked for 2½ years to bring Michael in from Quebec, Canada, for the purpose of breeding, since his subspecies is so genetically rare and valuable. She said it was an “adventure” to get permission for him to cross the border, one that even sent her all the way to Washington, D.C., to talk to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After a cow from Canada was discovered to have mad cow disease — bovine spongiform encephalopathy — in 2003, the border was closed to all ruminant animals, which includes goats, giraffes, deer and antelope in addition to cows.

“They opened the border for cattle but not everything else, so he was stuck up there and Canada could no longer breed because they had no more spaces; there were really valuable breeders up there standing around not breeding,” Horiszny said.

The Santa Barbara Zoo switched to Masai giraffes — it previously had Baringo giraffes — partly to help bring back the population, since there are only 90 Masai giraffes in North America.

“We should be a factory,” Horiszny said. “He’s the most valuable Masai there is.”

Michael is already 16 feet tall and growing, so he won’t be moved again. Instead, the zoo’s program leader for his species will decide when to bring in new female giraffes to mate with him.

Audrey and Betty Lou’s calves are likely to leave Santa Barbara after two years or so as well.

Program leaders work with all accredited zoos in the United States and abroad to keep track of the number of animals in captivity, genealogy and the number of spaces available in all institutions.

“We try to balance genetic diversity with the spaces you can actually hold the animals in,” Horiszny said.

The zoo just introduced two female African lions — sisters, actually — to the male, Chadwick, in anticipation of them breeding. Chadwick is genetically under-represented in the captive population, so it’s good news that at least one of the sisters seems to like him already, said Julia McHugh, public relations director for the zoo.

Santa Barbara also has animal populations that aren’t used for breeding, including its bachelor group of Western lowland gorillas and Humboldt penguins.

“They’re all strange in some way,” she said of the penguins. They’ve been “egg breakers” elsewhere, are over-represented genetically or are otherwise just not good breeders.

Check back with Noozhawk in the coming weeks for news of the giraffe calf births.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Santa Barbara Zoo Masai Giraffe Feeding from Giana Magnoli on Vimeo.

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