Wesley, the young giraffe, was simply curious.
On Tuesday morning, he wandered over to the chain link fence separating his habitat in Zoo Miami from a holding area, where a fellow giraffe was getting a routine exam. Wesley peered into the area, moving his head over the metal fence and lowering his neck into a 10-inch gap between the two posts by the pen’s entryway.
Then the 7-month-old giraffe, standing about 8 feet tall and freshly independent of his mother Mia, realized he couldn’t pull his head back through the opening. He panicked.
Wesley jerked backward, lost his footing and fell, hurting his neck, which was still lodged between the fence posts. Although zoo staff dislodged him in minutes, the damage was done. They worked with him for hours, hoping he could stand on his own. They medicated him. They even lifted him in a sling to help him stand up. But his condition worsened. He couldn’t stay on his four hooves and keep his balance.
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Unfortunately, a giraffe that cannot stand cannot survive.
“It became painfully obvious that he’d done a traumatic injury, probably to his spinal cord,” said zoo spokesman Ron Magill. “We humanely euthanized him. It was a tragic accident.”
Wesley’s death, the first of its kind at Zoo Miami, was a difficult goodbye. In recent years, several of the zoo’s older animals have died, including Nieve, the 19-year-old jaguar, who was euthanized in August.
It’s tougher when the animal is a calf like Wesley — especially in such a freak accident.
“We’ve had 48 giraffe born here at the zoo,” Magill said. “I’ve been here for 36 years; we’ve never had an incident like this.”
Workers immediately welded a bar between the two posts and started sealing similar openings around the zoo.
Giraffes are among the zoo’s most beloved animals. The world’s tallest land animals are gentle giants, and visitors go every day to feed them leaves from a deck overlooking the habitat. The towering creatures stick out their 18-inch tongues to lap up leaves handed out by zoo staff.
Hoofed animals like giraffes can be skittish, though. They can hurt themselves in situations where they can’t easily get out a tight spot, according to Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“It does happen. They do get spooked from time to time, and crazy accidents like this happen,” Vernon said. “It’s an unfortunate thing, but it’s kind of in the animal’s nature.”
Another unexpected giraffe death happened in October in Fresno, California. A baby giraffe started running along with his herd during a VIP event for a recently opened exhibit at Fresno Chaffee Zoo. He ran into a single metal wire barrier, badly hurting his neck.
Vernon said the association will likely ask Zoo Miami for an incident report, including explaining what the zoo has done to prevent any future accidents. The goal is to share lessons with other zoos.
“In hindsight it’s a preventable loss,” Magill said. “But hopefully we’ve learned from it and it won’t happen again.”