Helping a Giraffe to Become a Mom

The Calgary Zoo team announced today that they’re hopeful 8-year old Masai giraffe “Emara” will become a mother for the first time by overcoming pregnancy challenges she has faced in the past.

“Her zookeepers were devastated when Emara experienced two late term miscarriages, and subsequently a calf that died within 48-hours after birth in recent years,” said Dr. Doug Whiteside, senior staff veterinarian for the Calgary Zoo. “Pregnancy issues in giraffes are rare, so we have been working with specialists and zoos across North America to help Emara successfully become a mom this time.”

Very few institutions monitor progesterone levels of giraffes throughout pregnancy, but it was important to us to figure out what was happening so we could help Emara become a mom.  So, during her last pregnancy, the Animal Care team monitored Emara’s progesterone levels through fecal sample testing for hormone levels; every day one of the keepers would wait until Emara produced a fecal sample, it was collected and frozen until it was sent away for review in batches.

When her calf was born, sadly it succumbed to birth defects within 48-hours. In the months that followed, in collaboration with a Reproductive Physiologist from the University of Guelph we learned from the fecal samples that Emara’s progesterone levels had declined as her pregnancy progressed, which likely caused her miscarriages and ill calf.

We consulted with other zoos, reproductive physiologists, and the scientific literature to learn how best to help Emara overcome her pregnancy woes.  Progesterone supplementation is sometimes used in humans and domestic animals for recurrent miscarriages, and was used successfully in a rhino, but this treatment had not been reported before in giraffes.

When the team learned she was pregnant again, we were cautiously thrilled; rallying around Mom-to-be Emara supplementing her with daily progesterone in her favourite treat and continuing to monitor her fecal progesterone levels to ensure more normal levels were maintained.

Emara’s calf is eagerly anticipated in mid-October and her keepers are monitoring her closely; maintaining a stress free environment, increasing the calories in her diet to ensure she’ll be in good body condition that will allow her to produce enough milk, and preparing the giraffe habitat for the upcoming delivery.

Wild giraffe populations have plummeted more than 40% over the past 30 years due to habitat loss, civil unrest and illegal hunting.  The Masai giraffe has been particularly affected, resulting in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classification of “endangered.” As populations decline in wild, accredited zoos like the Calgary Zoo, possess unique genetic diversity that sustains healthy managed populations as a result of Species Survival Plan (SSP) breeding recommendations. Animals kept in human care, such as the ones loved and cared for by the Calgary Zoo team, have the potential to re-introduce genetic diversity back into the wild in the future.

We’re hopeful that we will be able to announce “Emara is a Mom” in October and ask our community to keep a good thought for this first time Mama-to-be!

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