Topeka Zoo’s Jesse the Giraffe gets end of life care

TOPEKA, Kan. – Jesse the Giraffe lives at the Topeka Zoo, and he’s not a spring chicken. At the age of 23, Jesse is one of the seven oldest male giraffes housed in zoos across the globe, according to the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) database.

Over the last few years, Topeka Zoo staff members have carefully tracked Jesse’s health, and they’ve observed a growing number of age-associated changes in his body.

“We know Jesse has some arthritis in his rear legs, he is experiencing some degree of muscle atrophy in his neck and it is getting more and more difficult for him to lie down and get back up,” Zoo Director Brendan Wiley said. “But lately, our biggest concern has been the development of laminitis in Jesse’s two front hooves.”

Laminitis is a disease that affects the feet of hooved animals, most often seen in horses and cattle. Symptoms include foot tenderness, problems walking, and inflammation.

As Jesse ages, taking care of him requires an extraordinary amount of effort from the zoo’s animal care and veterinary staff. Jesse has been on and off antibiotics. He takes medicine for pain management and joint comfort, and takes a nutrition supplement. “Jesse is worth every ounce of our effort. Our veterinary staff and our zookeepers are with him every day to evaluate his care,” Wiley said.

“One of the biggest challenges is getting quantitative data to match clinical assessments,” Wiley said. “Anesthetizing a healthy, young giraffe to collect medical information is risky; anesthetizing Jesse is out of the question. Even the use of standing tranquilizers has its own risks. Fortunately, we work with a great team of staff and contributing experts to get the results we need.”

To treat and manage Jesse’s hooves, Topeka Zoo animal care experts worked with a large animal radiologist and a farrier (specialist in equine hoof care). Through consultation with other zoo veterinarians, zoo officials were able to match what we see in radiographs and blood work to Jesse’s behavioral and physical presentation. Jesse’s blood samples show no evidence of infection. This good news allows Zoo staff to focus on reshaping his hooves to help him manage the laminitis.

“When the laminitis appeared, Jesse’s hooves experienced an atypical growth pattern,” Wiley said. “This is hard to describe, other than to say the hooves started to look really ugly.” This appearance, Wiley says, is what most likely prompted a call from a zoo guest to the USDA.

On Tuesday, three officials with the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service responded to a complaint about Jesse’s hooves. They heard in detail how the Zoo is managing Jesse’s health, and about indicators the Zoo will use to determine when Jesse’s health is no longer manageable. It may be two weeks or more before the Zoo receives any feedback on the USDA visit.

“We talk a lot about ‘quality of life’ – what that looks like and what it means,” Wiley said. “As it relates to Jesse we consider pain management, appetite and his spirit. To evaluate pain, we monitor how Jesse walks. As long as he walks well with a normal gait, we are confident that through pain management medications and the reshaping of his hooves, he is comfortable. His appetite continues to be good. As for his spirit, we have no doubt that Jesse knows and feels he is the dominant male in the herd. His eyes are bright and alert. It’s when we come to the day that one of those pieces is missing that we’ll have to make a hard decision. Whether that is days, weeks or months from now, we aren’t sure yet. He will dictate that.”

The Topeka Zoo and giraffe population managers say they’ve known for some time that Jesse is nearing the end of his life. Jesse was born at the Topeka Zoo on April 15, 1990, and since then, has sired six offspring. While Jesse continues to be the patriarch of the Zoo’s giraffe herd today, giraffe population managers have designated a young male to take over his role when Jesse’s time passes. That male is Sergeant Peppers, who arrived in Topeka in October 2013.

“Responsible animal management is sometimes awkward,” Wiley said. “On one hand, we have this beautiful, old, bull giraffe that still has the spirit of life in his soul. On the other hand is a young male that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be a bull yet, but who has already been assigned a future in Topeka.”

Sergeant Peppers will connect visitors to giraffe conservation, and contribute to the genetic diversity of the giraffe population.

“As for Jesse, he has touched the hearts of so many guests to our zoo,” Wiley said. “For many of us, we are thankful that Jesse gets to see one more spring. It is his favorite time of year.”


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