Even though her vets had put her on birth control, something about Kipele had changed. In fact, her keepers were so concerned that they decided to scan the elderly animal to see what was wrong. However, as they inspected the monitor, they saw the most incredible thing.
Kipele the reticulated giraffe began her life at Denver Zoo in Colorado in August 1993. So, by the beginning of 2017 the majestic animal was 23 years old – the oldest giraffe at Denver Zoo, in fact. In the wild, however, these creatures rarely live past 25 years.
Yet despite Kipele’s advanced age, her keepers at the zoo still placed her on birth control in order to prevent any unwanted accidents. For the giraffe, this meant having an injection or implant, which would supposedly protect her for up to a year.
Zoos often use contraception to control animal populations or guard against inbreeding. However, as wildlife contraception is still a relatively new science, zookeepers nevertheless keep a watchful eye on animals on the medication.
Another way to avoid unwanted pregnancies, however, is to simply separate male and female animals from each other. However, keepers apparently allowed Kipele to interact with male giraffe Dikembe, seeing as she was now on birth control. Dikembe, on the other hand, had moved to Denver Zoo in 1996 when he was just two years old.
Because zoo staff were monitoring Kipele on her new medication, then, they would have been able to notice any subtle differences in her appearance or behavior. And as the months passed, the giraffe seemed to be responding well to her birth control. Then, all of a sudden, something changed.
Vets noticed that Kipele’s stomach seemed to be expanding. What’s more, her udders were growing larger by the day. So, to determine what was going on, experts at the zoo had little choice but to scan her.
However, getting Kipele to cooperate with an examination proved to be harder than expected. At first, she even refused to allow vets to carry out an ultrasound. But, eventually, she gave in. And what the experts discovered seemed to be beyond belief.
Somehow, despite her being on birth control, Kipele had managed to conceive a baby with Dikembe. And what’s more, it wouldn’t be very long before she could meet her child. Vets estimated, in fact, that the calf was due in February or March of 2017.
Yet according to Brian Aucone, who helps to manage Animal Care and Conservation at Denver Zoo, it’s not actually that surprising that Kipele’s birth control failed. “When you get into wildlife, it’s not a perfect science,” he told 9News in March 2017. “There’s all kinds of birth control out there, just like there is in humans. Quite frankly, there’s nothing specific for giraffes.”
Giraffe pregnancies usually last for around 15 months. After that, a calf will rely on its mother’s milk for half a year. Calves tend to grow quickly, and they will often double in size in their first 24 months after birth. Once fully grown, a male giraffe can grow up to 18 feet tall, while females can grow to around 14 feet.
Kipele, meanwhile, welcomed her baby into the world in the early hours of February 28, 2017. It was a boy, and staff at the zoo decided to name him Dobby. What made Dobby’s birth even more exciting, though, was the fact that Denver Zoo had not witnessed a giraffe birth since 2010.
Though he was certainly a surprise, zoo staff couldn’t have been happier about the new arrival. “This was certainly a welcome addition to the Denver Zoo family,” Aucone said in a statement on the zoo’s website. “Dobby may not have been a planned birth, but now that he’s here, we’re excited to have him and look forward to him engaging with our guests.”
When Dobby was born, however, experts noticed that he was particularly small for his species, standing at just five feet in height and weighing in at a meagre 73 pounds. On average, giraffe calves are usually a whole foot taller. But, luckily for Dobby, he was in the best possible hands.
“Staff was monitoring Kipele overnight when she went into labor,” Aucone revealed in his statement. “Although the birth went well, the calf was not initially nursing. Staff fed the infant and provided critical care in his first hours of life to get him back on track. Now he’s nursing and we are feeling good about his health.”
Vets administered Dobby with a plasma transfusion to give him the nutrients he was missing from his mother’s milk. However, staff at the zoo denied that this could have been avoided if they’d have known about the pregnancy earlier. Indeed, according to Aucone, it’s an issue many mother giraffes face.
“There’s nothing that would have changed or should have been done differently,” he told 9News. “The issues that Dobby is facing can be faced by any giraffe. It’s a matter of after birth and getting enough milk from your mom, those sorts of things, so it’s not about anything that happened prior to that, so this could happen to any giraffe shortly after birth.”
In the days that followed Dobby’s birth, the mother and calf enjoyed some time alone together in their enclosure. During this time it was off-limits to the public – apparently in order to allow the pair to bond. “The building will remain closed during their first days together to provide them peace and quiet,” the zoo announced in a statement at the time.
Then, on March 5, 2017, the public got their first glimpse of Dobby at the zoo. “He has been gaining weight and strength every day and we are optimistic about his health improving,” the zoo wrote in a statement on their Facebook page. But, they added, “[We] are still monitoring him closely.”
With the addition of Dobby, Denver Zoo is now home to a herd of five reticulated giraffes. No doubt the other adults will help Kipele show her baby the way. And, if Dobby’s birth proves anything, it’s that the best surprises don’t always come in small packages.