The giraffe was born at sunrise in June, deep in Druid Hill Park, and appeared hooves first. Doe-eyed and tawny, he looked around with his head tilted to one side, like a curious puppy.
It was an endearing posture that won the calf, named Julius, admirers far beyond the Baltimore zoo.
It was also a sign that something was wrong.
In July, veterinarians made the wrenching decision to euthanize only the second giraffe born in 20 years at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Now they are revealing what they learned through subsequent investigation: A necropsy found lesions on the left side of his brain. Julius’ head tilted right not because of an inquisitive brain, but because of a damaged one.
It wasn’t the only discovery to come from his short life and death. Urgent days and nights led staff to try new methods of care for the giraffe, a member of a species recently classified as vulnerable to extinction. Now, the Baltimore zoo is sharing those methods with others.
Julius’ medical ordeal appears to have begun at birth. His caretakers suspect his oxygen was cut off somehow. With humans the syndrome is called birth asphyxia. With Julius it caused nerve damage that crippled his tongue. The calf couldn’t suckle. His birth weight of 143 pounds began falling.
Zookeepers tried for four weeks to keep the 6-foot-tall baby alive. When Julius refused a milk bottle, they mixed orange Gatorade powder into his formula. They recruited help from pediatricians at the children’s hospital in Mount Washington. They drove for hours one night to meet Ohio zookeepers for a handoff of iced giraffe plasma in the parking lot of an IHOP restaurant.
Each day, they chronicled the calf’s struggles in an online diary. Julius became a Facebook star with more followers than the city’s mayor; he was given his own hashtag. His celebrity revealed a new approach by zoos to open up and show families the realities of nature.
“People don’t come to zoos to see anything unhappy. They come to see animals playing. They come to see healthy animals. So that kind of developed for us into saying, ‘Oh, let’s not talk about the darker parts,’ ” said Mike McClure, general curator of The Maryland Zoo. “With the culture shift today, there’s a huge level of transparency. We now see there’s nobody perfect in the world. Zoos need to come out, too.”
Other zoos have embraced the tell-all approach. Staff at Animal Adventure Park in New York state didn’t know what to expect when they fixed cameras on their pregnant giraffe, April. More than two million people around the world watched her give birth live on Facebook and YouTube, said Jordan Patch, who owns the zoo. Her healthy calf, Tajiri, was born two months before Julius and his fans donated about $30,000 for wild giraffes in Africa, Patch said.
“That opens the eyes to many zoo facilities,” Patch said. “They’re changing the way they’re allowing the public to access their animals.”
Some animal rights activists have condemned the campaigns as exploitative. They flagged the YouTube video of Tajiri’s birth as sexually explicit and the live feed briefly shut down.
Still, zookeepers say the publicity brings attention and money to help save the world’s dwindling populations of wild animals. Among giraffes, the decline is staggering.
Researchers believe giraffes have vanished from at least seven African countries, including Nigeria, Mali and Senegal. Those remaining are scattered across sub-Saharan Africa.
As many as 163,500 giraffes roamed the savannas in 1985, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global governing body for wildlife. Fewer than 98,000 giraffes survive today — a 40 percent decline in about 30 years. While efforts to save elephants have drawn widespread attention — there are at least four times more elephants than giraffes — the plight of Earth’s tallest land animal has been mostly ignored.
“We’re calling it the ‘silent extinction’ because people weren’t really paying attention,” said Erin Cantwell, who oversees mammals at The Maryland Zoo.
Reaching 20 feet tall, giraffes make big targets. They’re shot for their meat and hides. Their tails are offered as bridal gifts in some villages. In parts of Tanzania, people believe giraffe bone marrow can cure AIDS. But the greater threat comes from the habitat loss driven by human development and agriculture. The wild savannas are shrinking.
In December, the conservation union downgraded the status of the giraffe population, declaring the species vulnerable to extinction. Four months later in April 2017, wildlife groups petitioned the U.S. to add giraffes to the endangered species list. The petition remains under review. If approved, authorities could begin restricting imports of giraffe bone carvings, hides and hunting trophies under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Most Americans will never see a wild giraffe, making zoos an essential teaching tool, said Stephanie Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
“Seeing one in the zoo is the next best thing,” she said. “You can only protect what you appreciate and love.”
About 550 giraffes live in captivity, and the Baltimore zoo has five of them. The zookeepers arranged a date between an 11-year-old male and a 7-year-old female, Caesar and Kesi. About 15 months later — giraffes have a gestation period of 460 days — Julius was born.
Though Julius wobbled up 20 minutes after birth, he didn’t nurse.
Ruminants such as cows, goats and giraffes depend on a mother’s first milk for antibodies needed to build an immune system. Without it, the slightest infection could kill them. A window narrows with each passing hour. By 36 hours, it’s too late to intervene with a bottle.
“With ruminants, it’s especially tricky. We’re always on a time clock,” said Dr. Ellen Bronson, a veterinarian at the zoo.
Intervention brings its own risks. It’s precarious work to bottle-feed a 6-foot-tall calf, and Julius had to be restrained. Too much handling could have caused Kesi to abandon, or worse lash out at, him.
After 24 hours, the staff stepped in. They tried soaking a towel in milk to mimic Kesi’s fur. They tried hanging a blanket above him to mimic her protective body. Someone suggested orange Gatorade powder; Julius seemed tempted by the citrus taste, but only briefly.
Hours passed, then days. “The suckling response was really the thing we were missing,” said Bronson, the veterinarian.
Only later would the necropsy reveal the lesions in his brain. The staff suspect the damage inhibited his tongue. The symptoms suggest neonatal maladjustment syndrome, a condition known in horses as “dummy foal.”
By three weeks, Julius showed signs of infection. Staff performed two emergency transfusions of giraffe blood plasma donated by zoos in Ohio and Colorado.
They fed Julius intravenously with formula prescribed by Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, the same nutritional supplement for premature babies. Dr. Richard Katz calculated the ratio of calories, fats and proteins, his first supplement for a giraffe.
Their efforts kept Julius alive, but he made no progress.
“He would never be a healthy giraffe,” said McClure, the zoo curator.
On July 15, one month after his birth, Julius was sedated and euthanized. Condolences poured in from fans around the country.
“This breaks my heart,” said one.
The staff say they learned from Julius’ case new care methods such as how to sustain a calf for days entirely on an intravenous line.
Last month Dr. Stephanie Carle at the Abilene Zoo in Texas called the vets here for help nursing a giraffe calf. Carle was surprised by their tip, but it worked.
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Abilene’s calf took a bottle after she gave him a taste of Gatorade.