In 2017, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium established the Giraffe Plasma Bank to help reduce giraffe calf mortalities. The International Center for the Care and Conservation of Giraffe, established this summer, is dedicated to growing the number of available banks around the country, and recently welcomed new partners.
Newborn giraffe calves may be six feet tall and can walk within hours of being born, but they’re extremely fragile. In the wild, calves have about a 50 percent mortality rate in their first year. In human care, it’s about 20 percent. The cause of a calf’s struggles can many times be traced to initial difficulty nursing. Its first mother’s milk, called colostrum, provides important antibodies and proteins. Without it, calves are more susceptible to infections and other health issues.
But, plasma treatments can increase the chance of survival for a calf that doesn’t receive their mother’s colostrum in the first day of life. Plasma is the liquid component of blood, and accounts for more than half of blood’s volume. It contains antibodies and transports nutrients, electrolytes, hormones, and other important substances throughout the body. It also helps remove toxins from the body by transporting them to filtering organs, like the liver, lungs, kidneys, or skin.
To get plasma, you need willing blood donors.
“Not all heroes wear capes,” said Amy Schilz, senior animal behaviorist at the International Center for the Care and Conservation of Giraffe (The Center). “Some wear spots.”
At CMZoo, 12-year-old male, Mashama, and 13-year-old female, Msitu, are the most eager voluntary blood donors. The two well-known giraffe work with their trainers to receive positive reinforcers – crackers, in most cases – while their team draws blood from a vein in their neck.
WATCH THIS BLOOD DRAW SESSION WITH MASHAMA
“The sessions are always completely voluntary, and Mashama and Msitu get excited for the reinforcers and extra attention they receive during training sessions,” said Schilz. “They can choose to walk away at any time, and our veterinary technicians use a specialized blood draw setup so the needle comes right out if the giraffe walks away. We also watch for signs of discomfort and we stop if we think a giraffe isn’t enjoying it, but we really don’t see that.”
Each giraffe plasma transfusion requires about six 250 ML bags of plasma to create, and each bag of blood takes about 20 minutes to collect. Once blood is drawn, it is ‘spun’ in a machine called a centrifuge at a local veterinary based blood bank. Centrifugal force separates blood into three components: red blood cells, platelets and plasma. Our veterinary team collects the separated, then frozen, plasma from the blood bank and stores it in CMZoo’s Giraffe Plasma Bank freezer, so it’s ready to go when giraffe calves need it.
The Center’s team shares their training methods, learns from others, and connects organizations that can now work together to make more plasma available in more locations – and that benefits giraffe calves everywhere, regardless of whether they live at an AZA-accredited facility or with a reputable private holder.
“I know this all sounds very scientific, but this program exists because we love giraffe and we want to save as many calves as we can,” said Schilz. “If we all work together, we can do that. That’s why we’re really excited to welcome more contributors to the Giraffe Plasma Bank team.”
In the past year, the multi-location Giraffe Plasma Bank has grown to five locations, and four more are in the process of training and setting up their banks. Dickerson Park Zoo, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in Springfield, Missouri, became a contributing member of the Giraffe Plasma Bank recently.
“We care for two giraffes that love to participate in training,” said Tracy Campbell, head keeper of Africa and South America at Dickerson Park Zoo. “Plus, we have a giraffe staff which does a great job with them. This is something we can do to help out the future of the population, and we are happy to do what we can. I give all the credit to my team for their hard work.”
Another new contributor is Highpoint Haven, a private facility and home to four giraffe in northeast Texas. Their team has a goal to lead a better standard of care for privately held exotic animals.
Dan Houck, a passionate giraffe lover and conservationist, owns Highpoint Haven. He has attended many of CMZoo’s giraffe care workshops, now operated by The Center, since 2016. Houck learned about hoof care, blood draw training and more, at those workshops and was able to customize those teachings to benefit the individual needs of the giraffe in his care. In 2021, a calf born into his herd directly benefitted from the knowledge, network and resources he gained at those workshops.
The calf, now named Sophie, was the second baby born to parents Harriet and Gerald. The labor and birth were textbook, but Sophie was unable to nurse.
“About four hours after Sophie was born and still hadn’t nursed, I was starting to get nervous,” said Houck. “We knew it was critical for the calf to get colostrum in the first 24 hours, but learned that many calves struggle if they don’t nurse within the first 9 hours or so. We needed plasma and we had to act quickly.”
Through his participation at the giraffe care workshops, Houck knew he could reach out to Dr. Liza Dadone, senior giraffe veterinarian at The Center and original co-founder of the Giraffe Plasma Bank along with Dr. Priya Bapodra-Villaverde, senior veterinarian at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Drs. Dadone and Bapodra-Villaverde were eager to help, but it was a Saturday, so mailing plasma to Texas from Colorado or Ohio wasn’t an option because it wouldn’t be delivered on a Sunday. The Highpoint Haven team started bottle feeding the calf with supplemental colostrum. They also drew blood and found that her blood glucose levels were dangerously low. Meanwhile, Dr. Dadone started calling on her network. The team was able to locate two bags of plasma, which were unused after another calf recently needed help at a zoo nearby. The team drove to pick up the two available bags of plasma on Sunday afternoon and administered them to the calf.
“By Monday morning, she was nursing,” said Houck. “The plasma transfusion was life-changing for her. It kick-started her instinct to nurse almost immediately. While we cared for Sophie, the team kept working to deliver more plasma from the Giraffe Plasma Bank to get us through the full treatment, which is six bags. Sophie got her last dose that Thursday and she’s been growing and thriving ever since. Now, she weighs 904 pounds and counting. She’s a handful, just like her dad.”
On Sept. 18, 2022, the Highpoint Haven family celebrated Sophie’s first birthday by making their first contribution to the Giraffe Plasma Bank, with Dr. Dadone on site to assist. Sophie’s dad, Gerald, was the voluntary donor.
“Gerald is a truly a one-in-a-million giraffe,” said Lauren Kimbro, manager of animal care and training at Highpoint Haven. “We have seen first-hand how plasma can save a calf, and Sophie is a healthy, happy calf with us today because of the expertise and generosity of the Giraffe Plasma Bank team. It takes a village, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”
Since its inception, the Giraffe Plasma Bank has benefitted 13 giraffe calves, and the teams look forward to continuing and expanding that reach as more donors and banks join the effort. To learn more about the International Center for the Care and Conservation of Giraffe, visit cmzoo.org/giraffecare.