Listening to the heart of a 2000 lb giraffe

Melissa McCartney, Zoo keeper, hoofstook area

While the Zoo gets ready planning and raising funds for our new giraffe barn and exhibit expansion, the giraffes are busy preparing too! When you’re as big as a giraffe – sometimes more than 16 feet tall and over 2,000 pounds – keepers and the vet staff need the animals to participate in their own care. Imagine trying to make a giraffe do anything, much less force them to let their blood be drawn for medical exams or have their feet trimmed without their permission.

Giraffes are hooved animals with anatomy similar to cows. That means taking care of them on a day-to-day basis involves a lot of work, from both the staff and our three reticulated females. Right now the girls are learning to stand calmly (munching on leaves or carrots and grapes) while the zookeepers look in their ears with an ottoscope, examine their eyes with an opthalmoscope, and listen to their hearts and lungs with a stethoscope – the same kind of check-up you’d get from your own doctor.

They’re even learning to pick up their feet so the staff can trim down their hooves – a lot like cutting your own toenails – when needed. Most importantly, the giraffes are beginning to get used to having ultrasounds done on their bellies. That means they need to let the fur be shaved off their sides in a small patch (to help the vets get a better sonogram), allow gel to be applied, and stand calmly while the probe is pushed around on their abdomens.

A bigger barn and exhibit means the Sacramento Zoo will be able to participate in a giraffe breeding program in the future, and medical exams on the mothers will ensure healthy baby giraffes. By getting the giraffes used to the routine now, when the time comes our staff will be able to keep a close eye on the health of both mom and future baby right from the start. The new barn will have lots of important features that will make the giraffe’s lives more comfortable and allow the zoo keepers to take excellent care of them – and hopefully the expanding herd.
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