How do you house and care for an animal that reaches 17-19 ft in height and well over 4,000 lbs? You can’t exactly convert a dairy cattle barn into a giraffe holding facility. The design of a giraffe barn and accompanying enclosure requires a lot more thought and preparation than you may realize. From the height of raised feeding platforms, to a squeeze or restraint chute, to the incline of the exhibit–many details require consideration.
Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul interviews Melissa McCartney, the lead hoofstock keeper at the Sacramento Zoo. Melissa recently helped remodel a giraffe barn and enclosure for Masai and reticulated giraffe and was asked to share some insight into giraffe husbandry and welfare in zoological parks.
By Jordan Schaul
All I remember is hanging on to the fence for dear life. I may train bears, but I’ll tell you that giraffe are up there on my list of dangerous animals. I was working as a relief keeper and once found myself dodging in and out of tall-ungulate traffic as a herd of Masai cows scrambled to get away from me. I was trying to navigate through a run-way leading from the giraffe stalls to their exhibit and the next thing I knew, legs and hooves were flying every which way. They weren’t trying to hurt me, but as a giraffe keeper can tell you, they are a flighty bunch and one kick– accidental or not– will be the end of you.
Interview: In February of 2010, the Sacramento Zoo opened a state of the art giraffe barn to replace an older facility and expanded their enclosure. The new Tall Wonders Giraffe Habitat is 2 million dollar expansion and includes a heated barn and luxury amenities. I wanted to touch base with my colleague, Melissa McCartney, to find out how the herd was doing and to gain some first-hand information regarding the social dynamics of this integrated group of giraffe. But first, I want to discuss a bit about giraffe conservation.
As a species, the giraffe’s conservation status is one of Least Concern according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This category is typically applied to species that are fairly widespread and abundant even if some of their subspecies or subpopulations are rare.
In the case of the giraffe, two of nine subspecies are increasing in number or their populations are considered fairly stable. With that said, the West African or Nigerian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta)– perhaps the rarest subspecies, and one of two subspecies whose numbers are actually rebounding, numbers fewer than 220 individuals in the wild.
Today, estimates suggest that there are less than 80,000 giraffes in the wild, which is far fewer than the estimate of 140,000 individuals reported just over a decade ago. There are approximately 2,000 giraffe ambassadors in captivity. These animals not only serve to educate people who would not otherwise get an opportunity to see giraffes, but they participate in breeding programs that may aid in the overall conservation of the taxon.
Jordan Schaul: Earlier this month, “Chifu”, a sub-adult Masai giraffe bull completed a 30-day quarantine period after arriving from San Diego in mid-April and joined your current group of reticulated giraffe cows. According to a Zoo spokesperson, “he is now exploring the exhibit and getting to know the three female reticulated giraffes, Val, Skye and Goodie– his new exhibit- mates.” Can you tell us a little more about his adjustment?
Jordan Schaul: Zoo hospitals and health care centers are not typically designed to accommodate the largest animals in a zoological collection. Hence, a giraffe barn must serve as a holding and confinement facility, as well as a quarantine facility. The barn must also enable the loading and unloading of animals. Is the design of your barn such that it can serve as both a holding area and quarantine for sick or newly acquired animals?
Melissa McCartney: So much thought and planning went into this facility that it really is an all-encompassing and state-of-the-art giraffe care center. Designing the barn involved Zoo staff (from keeper to vet to curator) as well as consultation with other zoos and knowledgeable contractors. One stall was specifically designed with quarantine in mind and it is connected to the loading/unloading yard; a holding pen outdoors with a swing wall inside and driveway leading up to it. Animals can be loaded and unloaded safely from special giraffe transport trailers and the yard serves as an outdoor area for the animal in quarantine. On the medical side, another stall was prepared to hold animals during veterinary procedures and features hot water, outlets, and access to the barns restraint device to facilitate nearly any medical husbandry. The barn’s ceilings even feature beams capable of supporting a winch that can hoist a fallen giraffe – a feat difficult for cranes or man-power alone. Since we were preparing ourselves to be a breeding facility, the barn is also set up for dams and calves to have private holding away from the herd during the offspring’s early days. Even the heating and cooling systems were installed in order to cater to the temperature demands of giraffe that help insure their health and well-being.
Jordan Schaul: First and foremost, the design of the building must accommodate the great size of these large-necked, even-toed ruminants (artiodactyls). Furthermore, it must also meet the needs of a small herd of giraffe and the accompanying idiosyncratic behaviors associated with the social dynamics of co-habitating bulls, cows and calves representing different age cohorts. You have a new bull that won’t be breeding with the cows because they are distinct subspecies. How are they managed on and off-exhibit?
Melissa McCartney: Our first priority was to consult with the AZA’s Wildlife Contraception Center for advice on the safest and most reliable birth control we could use on the females. We have the space and ability to house the male separately if needed – if he is too persistent in his pursuit of a female while she’s cycling, or to give one of the girls her own space if she is exhibiting any stress due to his attentions. For the most part, the entire herd will cohabitate at all times and the injections we give the girls will effectively contracept them. The number of stalls and outdoor yards incorporated into the design was, in part, to safeguard against any and all scenarios that could arise where one or more giraffe would need their own housing – either short or long-term. One of the most important factors of facility design is trying to imagine any and all social and medical situations and plan for the worst; if every one of our giraffe needed his or her own stall and outdoor yard at the same time, we could accommodate that.
Jordan Schaul: Social enrichment, the co-habitation of conspecifics is an important part of enrichment programming for herd animals. Can you share how the Sacramento Zoo takes this under consideration?
Melissa McCartney: The life of a wild giraffe is largely dependent on the group setting they live in. Males are brought down by predators more often than females because males tend to roam about alone. In captivity, keeping giraffes together in a group allows them to express those instinctive behaviors so important to their routine and sense of safety and well-being. Giraffes sleep such short periods of time, and usually in the presence of other giraffe who are awake and “on guard” as a sentinel. Keeping 4 giraffe allows our herd to mimic these patterns of rest and watch duty. While their social interaction may be subdued, it does exist and current research has revealed giraffe may even have preferences for specific other individuals – friends as it were. It can certainly be seen amongst our group; half sisters Skye and Goody routinely seek out one another’s company while Val enjoys the attention of our new male. Even his presence, while annoying in some ways to the younger females, has enriched their lives. Now they spend more of their day on the move, utilize more of the exhibit space, and engage in more social activities based on avoiding his company, seeking it out, or participating in breeding behaviors.
Jordan Schaul: Giraffe bulls can reach 18 feet tall and weigh over 4,000 lbs. What kind of environmental enrichment do you provide for these megavertebrates?
Melissa McCartney: A male giraffe devotes most of his time to two things: food and females. In my experience, the latter outweighs the former in many cases. The most enriching part of Chifu’s environment is, and will continue to be, the girls. Since he is a recommended breeding bull, a Masai female who is a sound genetic match will be joining our herd in the future. Then, he’ll be able to occupy his days in the courtship of 4 females; despite their birth control regime, the reticulated girls will continue to cycle and be attractive mates to Chifu. Most of his time will be spent in breeding behavior – foreleg lifts, urine sampling, careful pursuing, and actual breeding. Whenever he catches a free moment, he can enjoy the puzzle feeders we provide all diet items in, to extend feeding time and to engage the giraffe in using their tongues as much as possible. A giraffe uses its flexible, rubber, 18-inch prehensile tongue to feed. Leaves are plucked from branches, bark stripped, cud boluses twirled about the mouth. With a captive diet based in pelleted feed and hay, novel means of packaging the food for consumption by the animals needs to be found to mimic their wild eating habits. A large part of a giraffe keeper’s time is spent finding edible trees to provide as much browse as we are able – tree branches are enriching but also nutritionally necessary and make up a vital part of a giraffe’s diet, even in captivity. Without another male to spar, neck, and display to over the rights to breed our herd of females, Chifu has various toys to bang his head on to express those feistier urges. Male giraffe are quite the trouble makers when it comes to kicking, crushing, pounding, pulling, and even sitting on whatever they find laying about the yard or barn that isn’t nailed down – often times even nailing it down will not help. Luckily we keep a whole closet full of toys on hand for just such activities; balls to kick, boxes to stomp, barrels to roll and hit.
Jordan Schaul: Can you describe the behavioral training that you work on with your hoofstock and giraffes in particular?
Melissa McCartney: While it would be possible to sedate the animals and then do any necessary medical work, it isn’t very practical, safe or stress-free. Instead, we work with our hoofstock and they participate in their own medical husbandry voluntarily. The learning process is mentally stimulating and the payoff for both us and the animals is enormous. Generally the behaviors they learn are naturally occurring – such as lifting a foot or opening the mouth – and have a wide variety of uses. Simple desensitization to touch allows for physical exams of the body, the treatment of small wounds, and helps with diagnostics when lameness occurs. Teaching the giraffes to pick up a foot, as one would with a horse, can be an amazingly useful behavior; when lameness presents the foot and leg can be examined for wounds or injuries to the hoof, and our giraffe have learned to place their feet willingly on blocks for trims, radiograph plates for x-rays, even into buckets for soaks. Their yearly physicals can be performed without restraint because the giraffe have been trained to allow their eyes, ears and mouths to be examined, their chests and digestive tract listened to with the stethoscope, and even to have ultrasounds performed on their abdomens. Even positioning the giraffes is done through the training of different behaviors – there just isn’t a way to make a 2,000 pound animal do anything he or she doesn’t want to do! Instead, we ask them to step forward, backward, come when called, move the hip or shoulder in, all on a cue. Giraffes are remarkably smart and the food they receive as a reinforcement when they respond is highly motivating. The training process itself also takes a lot of stress out of these procedures as the giraffes become acclimated through repetition of the steps to any behavior as they learn it. We make it a priority to work with all the animals as often as possible, generally daily, to keep them engaged and also familiar with their own handling and care.
Jordan Schaul: Last year you opened a new giraffe barn. Can you describe how this customized state of the art, ungulate holding facility enhances not only herd management, but behavioral training for individual cows, bulls, and calves?
Melissa McCartney: One of the biggest challenges to working with a giraffe is how to do so safely. Even with a high level of trust between animal and keeper, one is still dealing with a wild animal and they can be unpredictable. When designing the new facility we made sure to incorporate a restraint chute. Though we do not typically restrain the giraffe while working with them, this passageway allows us to interact with the animals in a protected contact situation – keepers on one side of device, giraffe on the other. We access the various parts of the animal’s body through windows in the side of the chute. If needed, we could close the animal in and even squeeze it gently with padded walls to keep it standing in the case of an immobilization or to treat a major trauma. The floor has a recessed scale – weights are one of the fastest ways to monitor an animal’s health and are extremely handy for tracking pregnancy. The barn was also designed with a variety of catwalks that put us at eye level with the giraffes and enable safe interaction while working on medical husbandry behaviors such as voluntary blood draws and dental exams. With so many stalls, yards, and an expanded exhibit, each individual animal can be separated out and worked with comfortably. It requires several people at one time to manage a giraffe and the added space gives us all the elbow room we need, as well as cutting down on the chaos.
Jordan Schaul: I recently reported on the human-captive wildlife bond for News Watch. Typically animal caregivers have some favorite individuals in a given collection. Can you describe the relationships that you and your staff have developed with individuals in the herd and the general rapport you all have with the giraffe herd at the Sacramento Zoo?
Melissa McCartney: Each individual is unique, regardless of the species. Even among reptiles and birds there are clear personalities, so to speak. Certainly when dealing with a large and high-profile animal like a giraffe those difference are more clearly defined, even to the casual observer. When working with hoofstock, the animals favor routine. As a prey species, giraffes have an easier time going about the day to day business of being a giraffe in a zoo when the keepers are the same and the routine is maintained. Predictability goes a long way towards gaining their trust. Over the years, the girls have shown their own personal quirks, habits, and responses to challenges, changes, and stress. You learn to anticipate how they will respond, how best to motivate them, and what you can do to make them happy. I would never fool myself into thinking I could trust any wild animal, but I have definitely learned how to work around them safely and when I am being foolish by dropping my guard. In exchange, the consistency and patience a keeper shows pays off ten-fold when the animals begin to respond to you because their comfort around you is being rewarded. The training we do with our giraffes could never be achieved if we didn’t all work so hard to be respectful of our charges. To ask a prey animal to lift its foot and place it in your hand may not seem like a great challenge, but when you consider that lions bring down giraffe by attacking the legs and pulling them down, suddenly the trust a giraffe must feel to let you incapacitate it in even such a simple way is more apparent. Often I find myself altering everything from my voice to my movements, and even the firmness of my touch, depending on the individual. Skye is a card; she can think quickly, play games, and has a much higher level of comfort around people – she seeks out that attention. Training is fun to her and she loves the interaction. Goody is much more nervous about changes, noises, strangers, but is extremely trusting of keepers and is patient during training sessions. Val is her own giraffe and while she is tolerant, she prefers to be left alone. She isn’t drawn to the other girls or to the staff and she is not as food motivated or social. Despite her standoffish nature, to me her independent streak is what makes her so enjoyable.
Jordan Schaul: What is your philosophy or your institution’s philosophy concerning enrichment?
Melissa McCartney: Enrichment has come far in the captive environment; from being something a few institutions or individuals would offer to a select group of species to a mandatory and much talked about part of husbandry for all taxa. At the Sacramento Zoo we take enrichment seriously – birds, primates, the hoofstock, even reptiles receive enrichment daily. And there are a host of ways we can add enrichment to the animal’s lives beyond what guests typically expect (like food devices or toys for primates). Often, the best way to start is to look at the activity budget for a particular species in the wild. Giraffes spend most of their time browsing for food so enrichment for them is largely built around drawing out the amount of time the animals spend consuming their feed. Keeping them in a group of mixed ages and sexes provides the social stimulation they need. Behavioral husbandry and operant conditioning allows us to keep the animals mentally exercised as well. It’s always impressive to see the new ways zookeepers come up with to the keep the animals stimulated and engaged with their surroundings – the ingenuity often surprises me. Many times we find ourselves trying things that don’t work; the animals avoid the toy or device or feeder. And while we may not repeat the enrichment, for the time they had access to it, even avoidance can be new and exciting. They may use more of their exhibit to stay away from a novel item they are afraid of. A feeder may be too challenging and the animal becomes frustrated, but for that time they were active and engaged despite not reaching any payoff. There is a level of dependence captive exotics have on their keepers that most zoo staff are acutely aware of: our primary responsibility is to provide, and not just the bare minimum but the best possible. A well-developed enrichment program has become the standard in most zoos, and rightly so.