John Beifuss Memphis Commercial Appeal
Published 12:35 PM EST Nov 21, 2018
There’s one Memphian in particular with special reason to be thankful this week.
She stands about 7 feet tall, and she has a long purplish tongue, a couple horns, a total of eight toes and a pattern of what appear to be fuzzy jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered over her hide.
In other words, she’s a real beauty. “I can talk about her all day,” says one admirer
She is Mashamba, the newest baby giraffe in Memphis and the latest beneficiary of the ingenuity of Dr. Felicia Knightly, senior veterinarian at the Memphis Zoo.
“Stands” is perhaps the key word in the above paragraphs. Giraffes may seem to be all leg where they are not all neck, but those legs aren’t guaranteed to work, and Mashamba required intervention from zoo doctors before she could properly stand and walk.
Named for the Swahili word for “fields,” to honor ex-zookeeper and conservationist Fields Falcone, Mashamba was born at about 2 p.m. Aug. 10 in the giraffe enclosure at the zoo, in full view of the ooohing and aaahing public. Her mother is 8-year-old Akili, herself born in Memphis to a giraffe named Marilyn, who, at 25, is the grande dame of the nine-member herd.
Giraffes give birth standing up, so Mashamba — in a jolt roughly equivalent to the slap a doctor gives the bottom of a newborn — hit the ground from a drop of about 6 feet. The feeling of sudden freedom must have been especially welcome, considering her anatomy.
“In utero, they’re all folded up,” Knightly, 51, said of baby giraffes. But after birth, the animals waste little time unfolding, elevating on their long gangly legs so they can reach their mother’s milk (which provides the babies with all their immune function) and travel with their herd.
The good news is that Mashamba successfully nursed. The bad news was that zookeepers noticed her hind legs were, shall we say, unconventional.
Probably because the legs were folded in an unusual position in the womb, Mashamba’s limbs appeared to be “hyperflexed,” a condition Knightly had never before observed, “and I’ve seen a lot of baby giraffes.”
In other words, because of the crooked nature of Mashamba’s hyperflexed lower leg joints, her hooves were being pulled in an awkward, potentially devastating downward curve. (Classified as two-toed ungulates, giraffes have two hooves on each foot.)
Said Knightly: “It would be like if you were standing on the tops of your feet.” Worse, the condition didn’t appear to be fixing itself, as such problems typically do among babies. Without medical attention, Mashamba would lose the ability to walk on her own and live a normal zoo giraffe life.
Complicating matters was Akili. The mother giraffe had not responded well to her first baby, Bogey, a male born last year. Akili had refused to let Bogey nurse; as a result, Bogey had to be bottle-reared. But Akili was bonding well with Mashamba, so keepers didn’t want to disrupt the mother-daughter relationship.
What to do?
Knightly said she consulted with horse veterinarians before determining the solution to the problem should be…
Giraffe splints, cut from sections of PVC pipe; applied to Mashamba’s hind legs with wool cotton and padding; and colored pink because, well, Mashamba is a girl, so why not?
Fashionable as well as functional, the splints resembled leg warmers, giving Mashamba the appearance of a participant in an old Jane Fonda workout video.
Splinting Mashamba’s legs enabled the giraffe to stand upright, to bear her own weight and to nurse on her own, until her legs essentially healed, like a bone in a cast.
In other words, the splints provided “a great opportunity to have Akili succeed as a mom while having Mashamba succeed as a calf,” Knightly said.
Unfortunately, splinting a giraffe is — yes, we’ll say it — a pain in the neck. Separating the giraffe from her herd and then immobilizing her to put on the splints was a real challenge — a challenge that had to be met for 17 straight days, with new splints each day. Each new splinting required about four to five zookeepers and three to five zoo vets to complete.
Thankfully, the program worked. By the 17th day, when the splints were removed, “you couldn’t tell anything was wrong,” Knightly said. “She looks phenomenal.” And if Mashamba keeps growing as expected, she’ll reach about 15 feet in height, weigh about 1,800 pounds and maybe one day contribute a third-generation heir to her Memphis-born giraffe lineage.
That would be good news because not only are giraffes marquee stars at zoos, zoos increasingly provide insurance for the animal’s survival, as reticulated giraffes (the particular species at the Memphis zoo) and other types become increasingly endangered thanks to the loss of their natural habitat in Africa. In fact, giraffes have lost all their “free range” space, and now live only in protected parks in East and South Africa, according to Chuck Brady, Memphis Zoo president and CEO.
Whatever Mashamba’s future, she’s making fans in the present.
“This girl, she’s going to be an interesting giraffe, with a lot of personality,” said Knightly, sounding like a proud dog or cat owner as she shared anecdotes about Mashamba’s behavior. “I can talk about her all day.”
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