The 1,800-pound Elvira, one of the Toledo Zoo's three adult Masai giraffes - and a very pregnant one at that - had a surprise to show her keepers on the day after Christmas.
"They came in to feed her and there were tips of two hooves sticking out of her," Dr. Randi Meyerson, the zoo's curator of mammals, recalled yesterday. "Her water had broken."
Elvira was ready to give birth, nearly three weeks ahead of her due date.
Yet despite the premature Dec. 26 delivery, her boy was no small tyke: a 150-pound, 6-foot-tall calf that zoo staff named Enzi (Swahili for "powerful and mighty.")
Giraffe births are special occasions at the zoo, occurring about once every couple of years following the animals' 15-month gestation period.
Enzi was Elvira's first live birth after a 2008 still birth, Dr. Meyerson said. Typical of her species, the 5-year-old mother gave birth standing up. And Enzi is the third offspring of Mowgli, a 9-year-old male who lives in a separate stall from mother and newborn.
Mowgli last fathered a healthy calf on Dec. 25, 2006, when Charlotte - the zoo's third adult giraffe - gave birth to a female, Akila. Akila, Charlotte's second baby, since has been transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo.
Dr. Meyerson said zoo staff were especially delighted that Elvira was able to nurse Enzi. Charlotte, who was hand-fed by humans as a baby, preferred not to nurse her own young.
"We're really excited to have a baby giraffe at the zoo, and we're doubly excited to have her mother feed her," she said.
Zookeepers did hand-feed Enzi cow colostrum for his first few days, though, because it took Elvira's body about 48 hours to begin making her own milk for the premature baby.
Colostrum is the first milk a mother produces after delivery. It is loaded with antibodies and protects against infection.
Mowgli has caught glimpses of his son through chain-link fencing but has yet to be in the same room with him. Dr. Meyerson said that for safety reasons, they are waiting several months before introducing father and son, or allowing all three family members to hang out.
"There might be too much activity and the baby could be hurt," Dr. Meyerson explained. "[Mowgli] might want to breed again with the female."
Zoo keepers are sure to allow Charlotte a good view of the nurturing that Elvira is giving Enzi. Charlotte recently went off birth control in preparation for another baby of her own.
Charlotte "was a better mother to her second calf than her first one, so we hope that by watching Elvira, she will become an even better mother," Dr. Meyerson said.
Charlotte was notorious for neglecting her first baby, Zahara. She ran away from the calf each time it tried to nurse. The calf went on to contract a serious infection and later a kink in her neck of unknown cause, although it possibly was from injury. A splint appeared to take care of the kink, but not before two of the giraffe's neck vertebrae fused together.
In June, 2007, Zahara was transferred to Kentucky's Louisville Zoo, where zoo officials said they thought her neck condition had stabilized. But soon they noticed changes in the giraffe's posture and behavior, and found her often resting her head on objects. A veterinarian expert examined her and told the zoo that the risks of a neck surgery might outweigh the benefits.
Zoo staff reported discovering the 3-year-old giraffe lying on her side in her stall one day in August, 2008. After trying unsuccessfully to bring her to her feet, the Louisville Zoo said it opted to humanely euthanize the animal.
Necropsy results showed that Zahara suffered from a narrowing of the cervical spinal canal and pinching of the spinal cord, the zoo reported.
Dr. Meyerson said that by all indications, the newborn Enzi is healthy and doing great. He has grown to 185 pounds and 7 feet tall. He is also beginning to nibble on hay.
The zoo plans to have Enzi on display this spring in its Africa! exhibit area.
Masai giraffes, which are plant-eaters, are the tallest animals on the planet, standing an average of 16 feet to 18 feet in height once grown. In the wild, they can run at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
Their large and jagged brown spots are considered as unique and identifiable as human fingerprints.
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