“It’s a lot of neck to break”: giraffe surgery at the zoo is a delicate task

Very, very carefully.

That’s what vets and zookeepers did, bringing down Como Zoo’s male giraffe, Skeeter, on Thursday. University of Minnesota vet Dr. Fausto Bellezzo shot him in the right hip with a dart gun, loaded with a dose of drugs so powerful that staff had to have an opioid antidote within reach. hand in case people come in contact with the dart or drugs. while working on the giraffe.

The first few minutes are the worst, Bellezzo said. “What will happen when this mountain crumbles?” If he has to fall into a bad position, maybe even break his neck, which, there is a lot of neck to break. ”

Fortunately, that did not happen on Thursday.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Dr. Liza Dadone got to work with an animal welfare army from across the country. Zookeepers, animal anesthetists, biomedical researchers, vets and farriers rushed to treat Skeeter within minutes of being able to safely leave him on the ground. Giraffes haven’t evolved to lose their foothold and this is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to them.

“We did a lot of preparation to make sure he would come down as smoothly as possible, and in the grand scheme of things, he did,” said Dadone, who oversees a herd of 17 giraffes and is considered the one of the best experts on anesthetizing and caring for animals. “It’s always a little while,” she said.

Zookeepers tied Skeeter’s limp neck to an 8-foot padded plank to keep him erect, while a veterinarian anesthetist pushed a two-inch-wide hose almost as high as it was down his throat to pump oxygen in his lungs – giraffes have not evolved into breathing while lying down and they need to be intubated and ventilated for surgery.

And how did it come to this, you will ask me? Well, it turns out that giraffes in the wild evolved to naturally wear down their hooves – or claws, as they’re called. But zookeepers couldn’t find a surface that mimics this effect in captivity. Their claws push and push, and in some cases, it fractures a bone in their foot, which happened to Skeeter.

“It’s very common, but it’s hard to solve,” says Jill Erzar, giraffe keeper at Como Zoo. “So we decided in August 2021 that we were going to put a pair of shoes on him, and the shoes basically act like a splint.”

She’s Skeeter’s favorite, and he is his, but she said she couldn’t bear to see him get stung again, as those shoes, in fact flat, glued rubber pads, were taken off.

And while he was down, zoo staff gave him the full toll: Radiologists x-rayed his feet, and a team of Colorado farriers cut off his claws.

Meanwhile, Michigan State University exotic animal researcher Dr Valerie Johnson also administered experimental stem cell therapy.

“These cells have many useful properties, in osteoarthritis and fractures. They both decrease inflammation, but they also stimulate cells already in the body to start becoming more active,” said Johnson.

She says she and her colleagues have tried it on about 10 giraffes so far, and that they have all been successful – a promising treatment for a problem that plagues many giraffes in captivity.

Zoo staff also gave him a full body massage so that he did not stiffen up and lift and lower his head every few minutes so that his neck would remain flexible and his airways. remain open. Staff had made a minute-by-minute plan to treat him for over an hour.

And one more thing: Bellezzo, Como’s vet, surgically removed Skeeter’s testicles.

Skeeter has already sired eight calves, and the Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan has determined that there are already enough Skeeter – along with females Como, Daisy and Clover – in the gene pool of giraffes.

Giraffe sitter Jill Erzar said it would probably be better for everyone: “For the sake of the girls, we figured that if we took that testosterone out, maybe they could live a little more peacefully at home. retirement.”

And by the way, those testes won’t be wasted: They were packed in a cooler and Johnson, the Michigan state researcher, took them away to be made into more stem cells.

All in all, it took about an hour and a half, with dozens of people working on him at the same time, the last of them rushing out of his booth after administering reversal medication and having him helped to get up – some even choking back tears.

From outside his stall, they watched Skeeter get up – every 16 feet from him.

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