On Wednesday, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo said goodbye to Msichana [muh-SCHAW-nuh], a nearly 21-year-old female reticulated giraffe. After months of successful treatment for age-related issues, Msichana declined quickly over her last two days, and her care team made the difficult, but compassionate, decision to humanely euthanize her.
Msichana was well-known among CMZoo members and online fans, with her signature tongue-out appearance and her role as a companion to newborn calves and new members of the herd. She was born at CMZoo in 2002, and had one male calf of her own, named Kipawa, in 2013.
Because she was composed and confident, she was the herd’s welcome committee. New herd members would arrive and join her in a quiet part of the barn, and she was usually the first to meet newborn giraffe with their moms.
Being social animals, new giraffe found comfort in Msichana’s presence, and they could learn their way around the barn and yard by following her guidance as they settled in. When newborn calves were ready to start meeting other members of the herd, she was first – and even had sleepovers with moms and calves in the barn’s nursery stall.
“There were a lot of reasons to admire Msichana, but I think we’re most grateful for her contributions to our herd and to our knowledge of giraffe care,” said Savannah Woods, animal keeper in African Rift Valley. “She had a really special calm and nurturing demeanor. For calves and new giraffe, she made their first experience with us a safe one, and their relationships with her gave them the confidence to meet some of the more energetic giraffe in the herd. We could always count on Msichana to act as a ‘nanny,’ showing calves that other giraffe are friends, and helping new moms feel comfortable with their calves meeting other giraffe.”
Msichana’s role as a guide also translated to her relationship with her keepers. Most animals at CMZoo participate in voluntary husbandry training, and Msichana was one of the best. She participated in hoof care, stood for x-rays and allowed her team to take blood draws. She was an excellent learner, but, “Mishy Girl,” as her keepers called her, also taught her care team valuable lessons about training giraffe. Those lessons have shaped their training program and benefitted giraffe around the world, through the Zoo’s International Center for the Care and Conservation of Giraffe workshops and in-person giraffe trainings.
“She was definitely sweet and gentle, but she was also assertive,” said Woods. “I was lucky to have all of my ‘firsts’ as a giraffe trainer with ‘Mishy Girl.’ Because she was so clear about communicating what she needed from us or didn’t want to do, she set the bar for individualizing care for animals. She showed us that we can’t train one giraffe and presume we know how to train all giraffe. They’re individuals, and they need individual training and care programs. We owe a lot of our ability to read animals’ behaviors to what she taught us.”
Msichana was typically eager to train, but Woods also recalls being humbled by Msichana’s clear communication of her priorities.
“One day, a few guests were feeding her lettuce in the barn and after a little while, I asked her to come over to train with me,” said Woods. “She turned her ears back toward me, clearly hearing me calling her, and then turned and looked at me. She was weighing her options. It was an easy decision and she turned right back to the guests and stayed with them. When they left, she came right over to train, but she let me know who was in charge, for sure. I love that she knew she could make that choice, and that she knew she could say ‘no’.”
Because she was a strong and social ambassador with guests, Msichana has helped hundreds of thousands of people make special connections with her species, during her time on the mountain. She taught other giraffe how to do that, too, so her legacy as a teacher in the herd will live on through them and through the guests that come and fall in love with her species.
“I would call it a once-in-a-lifetime relationship, and she was a once-in-a-lifetime giraffe,” said Woods.
The median life expectancy for giraffe in human care, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is nearly 16 years. Msichana would have turned 21 on Sept. 21, 2023.
About Giraffe Conservation
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes giraffe as vulnerable to extinction, while two northern subspecies are considered critically endangered. Reticulated giraffe (the subspecies found at CMZoo) and Masai giraffe are endangered. According to recent reports, wild giraffe populations have grown 20 percent since 2015, with around 117,000 individual wild giraffe documented. But, there’s still work to be done.
Every visit to CMZoo is conservation in action. 75¢ from every ticket goes to the Zoo’s Quarters for Conservation (Q4C) program, which has raised more than $4.5 million for frontline conservation efforts around the world since 2008, including for giraffe conservation efforts.
Q4C helps support a multi-organizational giraffe conservation project in Uganda, called Operation Twiga. Operation Twiga began in 2016 to give giraffe a better chance of survival by establishing new populations of giraffe in safe habitats, in partnership with Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Uganda Wildlife Authority and others. Operation Twiga V (2020) was a continuation of Operation Twiga IV (2019), which CMZoo staff attended to assist with anesthesia and moving the giraffe from threatened habitats to safer locations. Both giraffe translocations contributed to populations in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, an historic habitat in Uganda where giraffe hadn’t existed for more than 20 years. Ongoing Q4C funding supports the teams who continue to monitor and protect these newly established wild populations.
About Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Society was founded in 1926. Today, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, America’s mountain Zoo, offers comprehensive education programs, exciting conservation efforts and truly fantastic animal experiences. In 2023, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was voted #4 Best Zoo in North America and CMZoo’s Rocky Mountain Wild was named #2 Best Zoo Exhibit in North America by USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. It is Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s goal to help guests fall in love with animals and nature, and take action to protect them. Since 2008, CMZoo’s Quarters for Conservation program has raised more than $4.5 million dedicated to frontline conservation efforts around the world. Of the 238 zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one