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5-month-old giraffe at San Diego Zoo Safari Park is ‘friendliest gal around’

The calf was born Feb. 1 and was fitted with braces because her legs bent the wrong way

With her leg braces off and ligaments stronger, a 5-month-old giraffe born at San Diego Zoo Safari Park has joined a herd and appears to be thriving.

“You can’t mistake her,” Safari Park mammals curator Gavin Livingston said while standing on the back of a flatbed truck as the 7-foot tall Msituni ambled up to him Wednesday. “She’s the friendliest gal around.”

Msituni (pronounced See-TU-Nee, Swahili for “In the forest”) stuck her head inside the flatbed’s railings as if to say hi to her guests. In reality, Livingston said she likely was expecting one of her twice-a-day bottle feedings, which will continue until she reaches 8 or 9 months.

She instead settled for nibbling on someone’s shoelaces before the truck pulled away.

Msituni, front, frolics with a herd of giraffes in the East African habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Msituni, front, frolics with a herd of giraffes in the East African habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Wednesday, July 13, 2022 in Escondido, California. Msituni was born in February with front legs that bent the wrong way. They were corrected with braces and she was recently reintroduced back to the herd of seven giraffes.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Msituni’s walk wasn’t always as graceful. Shortly after her Feb. 1 birth, keepers noticed her front legs were bending the wrong way when she walked.

“It was painful to see her walk like that,” Livingston said.

Following her birth, keepers had been keeping their distance from Msituni and her mother, Khaleesi, to give the calf and first-time mom time to bond. Watching her through binoculars, they noticed the calf’s front wrists were buckling back, so they called Livingston.

“When I got there and I started to see her walk and thought, ‘Uh oh, that does not look normal,’” he said. “She could walk, but she wouldn’t have been able to keep up with her mom, even in the habitat here.”

Livingston said he contacted the veterinarian team, who agreed that she could not be treated at the habitat and needed to go to the park’s hospital.

Unfortunately, the hospital is not big enough for an adult giraffe, so Livingston said they had to make the tough decision to separate the calf from her mother, meaning park staff would have to hand-raise Msituni.

“It’s not a decision we take lightly, but it was in the best interest of her welfare and development because she wouldn’t have survived without human intervention,” he said.

Safari Park staff members with Msituni in braces.
In this photo from February, Safari Park staff members observe the giraffe Msituni after she was fitted with braces to correct her front legs.
(Uncredited / Associated Press)

The park had never dealt with a condition like Msituni faced. A CT scan revealed her joints were hyperextended, but the park had no adequate medical devices to treat the condition.

Livingston said the immediate solution was to go to Target and pick up standard ACL braces designed for human knees.

After Msituni was fitted with the store-bought braces, Livingston said someone at the park with a connection to Hanger Clinic, which makes orthotics and prosthetics, contacted the company to make custom braces for the calf.

Veterinarians determined Msituni needed a brace only on her right front leg, and after wearing it in a hospital for a month, her ligaments grew stronger and were able to keep her legs in the right direction.

She was introduced to the herd in May, at first staying in a shelter known as a boma with giraffe calf Nuru and adult Yamikani, who became her surrogate mother.

 Nuru, left, grooms Msituni in the East African habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Nuru, left, grooms Msituni in the East African habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Wednesday, July 13, 2022 in Escondido, California.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Livingston said there was concern that Khaleesi might not bond with her re-introduced calf as she was a first-time mother. Msituni does seem to have bonded with Yamikani, but Livingston said keepers were touched when they saw Msituni and Khaleesi greet each other with a nose touch when they met again.

Safari Park has 13 giraffes, with six in the South African herd and seven in the East African herd, where Mstiuni was born.

Livingston said Msituni was one of two calves born in the park’s East Africa habitat this year, and two more are expected.


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