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Safety Concerns Behind Plan for Bigger Barn to House Santa Barbara Zoo’s Giant Giraffe

New facility intended to protect newborn calves, females from 2,700-pound Masai giraffe serving as most-valuable breeder

From left, giraffes Audrey, Betty Lou and Michael are among the Santa Barbara Zoo’s most popular animals. The zoo is on a quest to build a separate barn for Michael so it can keep the 2,700-pound Masai giraffe away from his more physically vulnerable pen mates.
From left, giraffes Audrey, Betty Lou and Michael are among the Santa Barbara Zoo’s most popular animals. The zoo is on a quest to build a separate barn for Michael so it can keep the 2,700-pound Masai giraffe away from his more physically vulnerable pen mates. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk file photo)

The Santa Barbara Zoo’s “enormous,” 2,700-pound Masai giraffe, Michael, is widely considered the world’s most “premiere genetic male” for breeding.

Hailing from Parc Safari in Quebec, Canada, the 17-foot tall giraffe has impregnated two female giraffes — twice — since his arrival at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2012. Sunshine has already been shipped to Waco, Texas, and Dane will soon head off to Phoenix.

But with two more babies on the way, and plans for many more in the coming years, zoo officials want to make some big changes that give Michael, the female giraffes, Betty Lou and Audrey, and their offspring more space at the complex.

“The possibility of an accident was significant,” Rich Block, CEO of the Santa Barbara Zoo, told Noozhawk. “We can’t always guarantee that calves are going to arrive at a time when Michael can just be left out doors.”

The zoo plans to build a 1,300-foot barn for Michael, to house him overnight in space separate from the female giraffes and the calves. Michael would sleep in the barn for a period of about four to eight weeks after the calves are born, and during feedings, to prevent accidents.

“Creating the space for Michael allows us to isolate him,” Block said.

Right now the giraffes cuddle in a single enclosure, but such close confines could be dangerous for newborn calves.

“A group of institutions is counting on Michael to be a good dad and produce offspring,” Block said.

The proposed structural steel and plaster enclosure would stand nearly 25 feet tall, with two sliding entry doors. The new barn is just the latest chapter in the zoo’s storied history of giraffe management.

Gemina, the crooked-neck Baringo giraffe, brought the zoo international attention. Tourists from all over the world flocked to the zoo to see Gemina, who died in 2008. Since then, the zoo has brought in the Masai giraffe, with the intention of serving as Ground Zero for breeding Masais in captivity.

The zoo spent nearly two years attempting to acquire Michael. The Agriculture Department had restricted all hoof stock animals, including giraffes, from importation from Canada after a breakout in mad cow disease last decade.

Now that the Santa Barbara Zoo has Michael, it is working with other West Coast zoos as part of a regional giraffe management program.

Block said the zoo has long had plans to shift from the Baringo to the Masai giraffes. Masai giraffes have a good potential for long-term management that would entail healthier animals over the long-run, he said.

“As much as we became affectionate for crooked necks, it’s not always a formula,” he added.

The new calves are expected in October and April.

“The babies just don’t know how to use their legs yet,” explained Sheri Horiszny, director of animal care for the zoo. “Right now they all go down and lay down in the barn. They are all just laying down in a small space. They don’t want him laying on someone. He’s big.”

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission approved a coastal development permit at its July 17 meeting. Construction would be completed by March, for the second delivery, but not in time for the first delivery in October.

Still, when the first calves arrive, Horiszny said the zoo crew would be ready to avert any potential problems.

“We have cameras in the barn,” she said. “When it got close to delivery time this last time, we took different times to look. We are checking every hour. Labor and delivery is usually two to four hours.”

Block and zoo officials are excited about the added space at the zoo and the long-term potential for the breeding program.

“He was the Andrew Luck of the giraffe draft,” Block said. “This was possibly the premiere male giraffe, possibly in the world, for Masai giraffes, best breeding potential, best genetic makeup.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina 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.

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