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‘That’s a lot of neck to break’: Giraffe surgery at zoo is a tricky task

Zookeepers, animal anesthesiologists, biomedical researchers, veterinary surgeons and exotic animal farriers raced to treat Skeeter in the few minutes they could safely let him be on the ground. Giraffes did not evolve to be off their feet, and it is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to them.

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University of Minnesota veterinary anesthesiologist Erin Wendt Hornickle attends to Skeeter the giraffe at Como Zoo in St. Paul as he undergoes treatment for a broken foot bone Thursday, Oct. 28. Tim Nelson / MPR News
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ST. PAUL — How do you knock down a 16-foot-tall, 2,000-pound wild animal for surgery?

Very, very carefully.

That's what vets and zookeepers did, as they brought down Como Zoo's male giraffe, Skeeter, on Thursday. University of Minnesota veterinary surgeon Dr. Fausto Bellezzo shot him in the right hip with a dart gun, loaded with a dose of drugs so powerful that staff had to have an opiate antidote on hand in case any people came in contact with the dart or drugs while working on the giraffe.

The first few minutes are the worst, Bellezzo said. “What is going to happen when that mountain comes down? If it’s gonna fall down in a bad position, possibly even break his neck, which, there's a lot of neck there to break."

Happily, that did not happen Thursday.

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Dr. Liza Dadone, from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, set to work on him with an animal care army brought in from all over the country. Zookeepers, animal anesthesiologists, biomedical researchers, veterinary surgeons and exotic animal farriers raced to treat Skeeter in the few minutes they could safely let him be on the ground. Giraffes did not evolve to be off their feet, and it is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to them.

“We did a lot of preparation to make sure he would go down as smoothly as possible, and in the grand scheme of things, he did,” said Dadone, who oversees a herd of 17 giraffes and is considered one of the top experts on anesthetizing and treating the animals. “It is always a little bit of a moment,” she said.

Zookeepers strapped Skeeter's limp neck to an 8-foot padded board to keep it straight, while a veterinary anesthesiologist shoved a two-inch-wide pipe nearly as tall as she was down his throat to pump oxygen to his lungs — giraffes did not evolve to breathe lying down and they have to be intubated and ventilated for surgery.

And how did it come to this, you might ask? Well, it turns out that giraffes in the wild evolved to naturally wear down their hooves — or claws, as they're called. But zookeepers haven't figured out a surface that mimics that effect in captivity. Their claws grow and grow, and in some cases, it fractures a bone in their foot, which is what happened to Skeeter.

“It's very common, but it's hard to fix,” says Jill Erzar, a giraffe keeper at Como Zoo. “So we decided, August of 2021, we were going to go in and put a pair of shoes on him, and the shoes essentially act like a splint.”

She’s Skeeter’s favorite, and he hers, but she said she couldn’t bear to watch him be darted again, as those shoes, actually flat, glue-on rubber pads, were removed.

And as long as he was down, zoo staff gave him the full workup: radiologists X-rayed his feet, and a team of zoo animal farriers from Colorado trimmed his claws.

While that was going on, Michigan State University exotic animal researcher Dr. Valerie Johnson also administered an experimental stem cell therapy.

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"These cells have many properties that are helpful, with osteoarthritis and also with fractures. They both decrease inflammation, but they also stimulate cells that are already in the body to start becoming more active,” Johnson said.

She says she and her colleagues have tried it on about 10 giraffes so far, and they've all done well — a promising treatment for a problem that plagues many captive giraffes.

Zoo staff also gave him a full-body massage so he didn't stiffen up and lifted and lowered his head every few minutes so that his neck would stay flexible and his airway would stay open. Staff had worked out a minute-by-minute plan to treat him for more than an hour.

And one other thing: Bellezzo, Como's vet, surgically removed Skeeter's testicles.

Skeeter has sired eight calves already, and the association of zoos and aquariums species survival plan has determined that there's already enough of Skeeter — as well as Como's females, Daisy and Clover — in the giraffe gene pool.

Jill Erzar, the giraffe keeper, said it will probably just be better for everybody: "For the sake of the girls, we thought, if we take away that testosterone, maybe they can live a little more peacefully in retirement."

And by the way, those testicles won't go to waste: They were packed in a cooler and Johnson, the Michigan State researcher, carried them off to be turned into more stem cells.

All in all, it took about an hour and a half, with dozens of people working on him all at the same time, the last of them dashing out of his stall after administering reversal drugs and helping him struggle to his feet — some even choking back tears.

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They watched from outside his stall as Skeeter got back up — all 16 feet of him.

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