'Lady' ages gracefully

The Baltimore Sun

She's sweet-tempered and curious - and as gentle and graceful as a 1,500-pound, 14-foot-tall animal can possibly be.

Her keepers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore think she's beautiful. But when Gretchen the giraffe is in your face - all ears, horns, lips and drool, with her 18-inch tongue snaking out to grab a bunch of romaine - she's simply comical.

There is nothing funny, however, about the challenge zoo veterinarians face each day keeping the geriatric giraffe as healthy and comfortable as possible as she nears the end of her life. "She's an old lady with a big problem," said Dr. Ellen Bronson, the zoo's senior veterinarian.

In the wild, predators eat the lame and the slow. But surviving into old age in captivity brings its own troubles - and arthritis is one of the most common.

Gretchen, almost 22, has lived twice as long as the median for captive giraffes in North America. She suffers from arthritis and swollen joints. Some days, often when it's cold and damp outside, it pains her visibly to move around.

To ease her discomfort, veterinarians give Gretchen regular injections of a joint "supplement" familiar to creaky humans, plus anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medicine.

The Maryland Zoo is also treating a lesser kudu (an East African antelope) for severe arthritis in its front legs, Bronson said. Magnet the polar bear, several older monkeys, both the zoo's lions, a male warthog, some birds and even a timber rattlesnake are being treated, as well.

Laurie Bingaman Lackey, the giraffe studbook keeper for the American Zoo Association, said Gretchen's problem is one downside to success. "We in the zoo industry, the vets, the nutrition ... have done such a really fine job of keeping the animals healthy ... the animals are living a very long time," she said.

Despite the Maryland zoo's financial and maintenance troubles, the institution acquired a rugged and complex giraffe restraint device several years back.

With it, keepers can safely hold and support Gretchen while they inject her medicine and trim her hoofs - easing the pain of foot deformities she developed over the years. And they trained Gretchen to stroll into it.

"Hopefully she has months, to years, to go. ... At this point we're all still pretty happy with her," Bronson said.

Foot and leg problems are particularly bothersome in giraffes. A 1996 study, noted in the Giraffe Husbandry Manual of Australia's Victoria Zoos, said they "may be a partially hereditary problem."

Gretchen is one of five giraffes at the Maryland Zoo: Angel and Zoe are 10 and 12, respectively, while Caesar is just 1 1/2 . But another, Mary, is the same age as Gretchen. She has been at the zoo just as long, and received the same care. But her feet and legs are fine.

Lackey noted that Gretchen is significantly inbred - apparently the unintended product of a union between her mother and grandfather, a famous white giraffe named Bill at the Denver Zoo. But that could also be a coincidence: "Just because she's inbred doesn't mean it has anything to do with her joints and legs," Lackey said.

Nor is there any evidence that bad feet shorten the lives of captive giraffes.

Lackey's studbook has records of 8,500 animals going back to the 1800s. "The two [giraffes] with the single worst feet I have ever seen in my life" were also the two oldest giraffes in the studbook, she said. The female lived to 40, the male to 29.

Gretchen has had foot and leg issues since birth. Records from the Denver Zoo note "bleeding wounds" on her right hind leg and both forelegs on the day after her birth there in May 1986.

Lackey speculated that Gretchen's mother may have stepped on her, an accident that is sometimes unavoidable. At just two months of age, Gretchen developed pressure sores on her right rear knee and left and right ankles. They became infected and inflamed. Bronson says she believes the infection may have led to the chronic inflammation and arthritis in her other joints.

Gretchen was brought to Baltimore in May 1987, and records since 1999 show the swelling and lameness in her feet and legs have grown worse.

Her front hoof claws became curved, growing inward. Before the zoo acquired its restraint device, veterinarians trained her to stand still in a hallway for partial hoof trims with a hammer and chisel. They also continued to give her oral and injected pain medication.

By August 2003, Gretchen was also receiving a veterinary form of glucosamine and chondroitin, supplements used by humans to improve joint motion. But her feet began to turn outward, and X-rays showed evidence of "mild arthritic changes."

A year ago, Gretchen grew lame in her left rear leg, too, perhaps aggravated by attempts to shift her weight to relieve pain in the front feet. Her pain meds have been increased.

When they see she's hurting, the staff responds. Last week, keeper Loren Sobeck, 26, used romaine, carrots and acacia leaves to coax the giraffe into the restraint device. "C'mon Gretchen!" she called. "Good girl, Gretchen!"

The towering animal stepped silently into the stall-like cage and stood there calmly, munching her treats as the gate closed behind her. Her keepers pushed the padded sidewalls inward to hold her snugly, then slipped two yellow support straps under her belly.

Bronson stepped into a space alongside the giraffe. After a warning - "Touch, Gretchen!" - she jabbed a hypodermic needle through the thick skin on the animal's thigh, delivering a biweekly dose of a joint supplement. Gretchen barely flinched.

A few minutes later, from the opposite side of the restraint, keepers lifted the giraffe's left front leg with ropes and Bronson began to file and clean up her hoof. But they quit minutes later when Gretchen began to struggle. That was unusual, they said.

"We call her 'The Lady of the House,'" said trainer Jennifer Rosado, 34. "She'll basically do anything if you love her. That's why it's important to us to make her as happy as possible, for as long as possible."

Some days she's quiet, she said. But on others she's made a beeline for the yard, where construction work (for the soon-to-open public giraffe feeding area) has her "mesmerized."

"They're very inquisitive," Rosado said. "'What's that? Can I eat it? Can I play with it?' ... I compare them to a toddler."

And, they're charming. Once, soon after Rosado began working in the giraffe barn, filling the feed basket on the wall, Gretchen "leaned her head beside me and watched me do it," she recalled.

"We had a 'moment,' " she recalled, "and after that, I was totally sucked in."


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