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What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Baby Giraffe

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
With Lead Animal Keeper Katie Ahl

Olivia and Dave on the savanna. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
Have you “herd” the news? We recently announced that Olivia the giraffe is expecting her second baby this spring! Olivia had her first baby in 2013, but this will be the first offspring between Olivia and Dave.

There is a lot of excitement around a giraffe pregnancy, and a lot of hard work that goes into preparing and planning for a birth and a baby giraffe. We chatted with animal keeper (and giraffe doula) Katie Ahl to find out what to expect when you’re expecting a baby giraffe.

WPZ: First off, how’s Olivia doing?

Katie: Olivia is doing very well. She’s eating well and seems comfortable and relaxed. We have been planning for this pregnancy for almost 2 years. We took Olivia off birth control late in 2017 and started monitoring her cycle to see when she would be in estrus. This is a very small window of about 24 hours so we had to keep an eye on her so we wouldn’t miss it. She and Dave bred in January of 2018 a couple of times and after that, she stopped cycling. We did a fecal hormone test at the beginning of her 2nd trimester and got the news she was confirmed pregnant. Fast forward to today, and we’re nearing the end of her pregnancy and doing final prep of the giraffe barn and savanna, as well as watching her development. We closely monitor her diet and behavior and make adjustments to keep her comfortable and full of the food she and her little one need.

Olivia, with her first calf in 2013, has proven to be an excellent mother. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

WPZ: This is Olivia’s second pregnancy, so how does it compare to her first in 2017? Are you noticing any trends or similarities?

Katie: Yes, we’re excited to see Olivia as a mom again. She took great care of Misawa, her first calf, and was a wonderful aunt to Lulu, Tufani’s calf. I am seeing a few similarities to her first pregnancy and even to Tufani’s pregnancy. Currently we’re monitoring her diet intake. She normally eats all her grain pretty quickly but right now she seems to want smaller portions. This means we’re extending her food access overnight which allows her to eat when she wants. She has also started taking more bathroom breaks often (whether she actually has to go or not). I attribute that to the fact that the calf is taking up a bit more space in her abdomen and pushing on her bladder from time to time. I think many pregnant fans out there can relate to that! All of this is on track from what we’ve seen from her in the past and it’s great to see her as comfortable as she can be in her 3rd trimester. We even saw her take a gallop around the savanna in January. (OK, it was more of a slow lumber but she was definitely kicking up her heels a bit!) 

A giraffe calf can be 6' tall at birth and will spend its first hours and days learning to stand, walk, nurse and bond with mom. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

WPZ: We’ve heard that Olivia’s baby is due sometime between mid-March and late April. Why is that birth window so long? Any guesses on when it might happen?

Katie: Ok here’s the inside scoop for anyone doing a giraffe birth pool out there. The facts: giraffe cycle every two weeks and are in estrus for about one day. We saw two estrous cycles from Olivia in Jan 2018 with successful copulation. Giraffe gestation is 14 ½ to 15 months long. And Olivia went late into her birth window for her first calf.

So if you factor in the two copulation dates, the two week variable in gestation length, and a week or two for just in case, you get a window of possible birth that’s around 6-8 weeks long. Believe me it’s harder to for us to wait than it is for her! I hope she gives birth in mid-April, but your guess is as good as mine. We all just want the birth to be as easy as possible and a healthy calf afterwards.

WPZ: You know all our giraffes very well. Does pregnancy change Olivia’s behavior at all? What about Dave—does he seem to notice?

Katie: Ha! Dave is not aware at all. Olivia on the other hand might be aware of some physical changes and some of her hunger and diet preferences will drive some of her behavior. For example, when she lays down she doesn’t curl up as much as she normally can and she is a bit more engaged in our training sessions because she really wants those extra treats. But currently it’s business as usual at the giraffe barn. When she goes into labor then we will see some additional behavior changes that could include restlessness, pacing and a bit of impatience.

Misawa, Olivia's first calf. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
WPZ: Did you plan for Olivia and Dave to have a calf together, or are animal pregnancies a surprise? How does that work?

Katie: This is definitely planned. The Giraffe Species Survival Plan—referred to as the SSP—made a recommendation a while ago for Dave and Olivia to breed, but it was up to Woodland Park Zoo to decide the best timing for us to facilitate that. Our veterinary staff thought it would be best to have a spring or summer birth so that the giraffe would have more space and warmth before going into the next fall and winter.

We want to have room for all our animals (young and old) to live comfortably and be able to exhibit appropriate species behavior (foraging, breeding, socializing, etc). The SSPs allow us to properly manage the populations that are in human care so that we have a diverse genetic pool that is properly cared for and healthy. 

Soon, the new calf will be able to explore the area in and around the giraffe barn while getting to know Aunt Tufani and dad Dave (seen here with Lulu in 2017). Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Of course, it’s definitely still up to the animals to decide if they would like to breed. Sometimes they choose not to do it, but lucky for us we've had good luck with our herd.

WPZ: So what happens next? Obviously you and the other keepers are watching and waiting, but what else needs to happen before a baby arrives?

Katie: Our team just went over our birth prep list. It’s a list of work completed in the past that we check before every birth and decide if it needs to happen again. Examples are steam cleaning the barn, installing baby-proofing gates, and assessing the savanna for a calf and making sure it’s safe.

The giraffe continue to be on view in the barn and corrals and as the weather warms up you’ll see them on the savanna. We will be checking Olivia daily for signs of labor and it will be a regular routine for all of them until the day of the birth comes. So you can certainly come visit the giraffe and wish Olivia well.

Mothers have the chance to quietly bond with a new calf behind the scenes in the comfort of the giraffe barn. Tongue baths are often the first order of business. Tufani with Lulu in 2017. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/ Woodland Park Zoo
WPZ: You’ve been able to witness several giraffe births here at Woodland Park Zoo. What is that like?

Katie: Seeing a giraffe birth is pretty amazing. I have been privileged to see both of our births over the last few years. It’s messy, but quiet. A few days before it happens, we start to see teat development and her udders fill up and a shift in calf placement (the baby drops). The day or so before we see some other physical changes too, and the day when birth is imminent, we often see a lot of pacing and a little irritation from mom—which is totally understandable. During Olivia’s first delivery a few years ago, she did not stop pacing all day.

Once the calf is born we will observe around the clock to make sure it is standing and nursing, and we’ll look for good maternal behavior from Olivia. We’ll have a neonatal exam to determine passive transfer—the passage of antibodies from mother to baby through the placenta and through nursing. We will also do a physical exam where we collect some samples (blood, placenta and possible urine) and will get a weight and height. Newborn giraffe are usually around 6 feet tall. Then we’ll let mom and baby bond for a couple of days. Tufani and Dave will have visual access and some physical access to them from over the fence, but will be kept separated from them to start. When the calf is about a week old we will start outdoor time and that’s when the public will be able to see the little one. As the weeks follow we will fully introduce Tufani and Dave to Olivia and the calf, and then later in the spring they will all get to go to the savanna to meet the zebra, gazelle and ostrich. It’s going to be a busy and exhausting but fun summer.

Woodland Park Zoo's Katie Ahl did some field work with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia. Photo by Katie Ahl/Woodland Park Zoo

WPZ: A visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports conservation of animals in the wild—so when people come to visit our giraffes they are also helping support the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). Tell us more about that. 

Katie: The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is part of Woodland Park Zoo’s Wildlife Survival Program. That means when you come visit the zoo, a portion of your admission goes to our program that supports them. Giraffe Conservation Foundation works throughout the whole content of Africa with all the types of giraffe. They do DNA studies, census work, and even translocations. That is where they move giraffe back into habitat where they used to live but are not currently there, or they move populations and genetics to different parts of parks to keep the populations growing and healthy.

A data sheet helps Giraffe Conservation Foundation scientists and researchers track information. Photo by Katie Ahl/Woodland Park Zoo
I recently had the privilege to join the Giraffe Conservation Foundation team for some field work in Namibia. I’ll tell you it was very hot there, but the time out in the field helping collect data and seeing all those giraffes made every hot, sweaty second worth it. It was great to connect my work here at Woodland Park Zoo with something happening in the wild and see how we can all work together to make the world a better place for animals and people.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is doing some amazing conservation work. You can check out their webpage for more information about all their projects and how they impact giraffe in Africa.

WPZ: Wow! That must have been an amazing trip!

Katie: Yeah, I learned a lot about field work but what I took away from that trip was a renewed spirit and drive to come back here and make a difference.

When the weather is warm enough and the time is right, the calf will be able to play on the savanna, as demonstrated by Lulu and Dave in 2017. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

WPZ: So is there anything more you want to share with us about what to expect when expecting a baby giraffe?

Katie: Get ready for another summer of cuteness! I’m really looking forward to this new big bundle of giraffe and hope Olivia has an easy delivery. I’ll keep you posted on changes with Olivia and the herd right here, but be sure to plan a couple of visits this summer to see them!



Joyce said…
This was an interesting and informative interview. Nice to get the inside scoop from an expert who works so closely with Olivia and the giraffe herd every day! Congratulations!