Giraffe Calf, Yao, Loses Valiant Battle Against Bone Infection

February 25 – April 19, 2013

Following an aggressive course of treatment since mid-March, it is with a deep sense of loss and profound sadness that the Houston Zoo reports that Yao, a 7 week old Masai giraffe calf has lost a valiant battle against a life threatening bone infection.

This morning, Yao was sedated and Dr. Wyatt Winchell, an equine orthopedic specialist who has treated Yao since diagnosing the bone infection and the Zoo hospital staff x-rayed his right shoulder and left hip.  “The x-rays indicated Yao’s right shoulder had stabilized,” said Dr. Winchell. “However, the images also indicated degenerative joint disease and cartilage loss around the area of the hip joint, a secondary effect of the original bacterial infection which had shown indications of being resolved,” Dr. Winchell added.

“The antibiotics had performed as expected to control the bacterial infection,” said Houston Zoo Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Joe Flanagan.  “In consultation with Dr. Winchell, we determined the resulting degenerative joint disease and cartilage loss in the left hip would mean a reduced quality of life marked by life-long chronic pain,” Said Dr. Flanagan.

After consultation between Dr. Winchell, Zoo veterinarians, John Register and the giraffe keepers, Yao was humanely euthanized this morning.

One week after his birth on February 25, Houston Zoo giraffe keepers and Zoo veterinarians noticed Yao was favoring his left rear leg. Yao and his mother Neema were kept in a separate stall for observation.  When the limp gradually became worse, the Zoo veterinary staff x-rayed the leg, found no evidence of bone damage, and placed Yao on antibiotics and other medication including anti-inflammatory analgesics.

When Yao was observed limping on his right front leg, the Zoo brought in equine orthopedic specialist Dr. Wyatt Winchell of Brazos Valley Equine Hospital who determined that Yao had developed a bone infection in his right shoulder. Immediately an aggressive treatment regime began that included stronger antibiotics, arthroscopic surgery to remove infected bone, regular saline flushes of the joint and twice daily physical therapy.

Since mid-March, Yao’s course of treatment included analgesics, twice daily antibiotic treatments, regular saline flushes to remove infected fluid from his right front shoulder, and twice daily physical therapy – walks in an outdoor paddock next to the McGovern Giraffe Exhibit giraffe barn with the giraffe keepers.

“Yao was always very calm and cooperative during the procedures,” said Houston Zoo Hoofed Stock Supervisor John Register.  “We couldn’t have asked for a better patient,” said Register.  “They were performed in the giraffe barn where his mother Neema could watch from an adjacent ‘bedroom’ and she would occasionally bend her head down and lick his face during the procedures,” added Register.

“Neema was a first time mother,” said Register.  “But if there was one good thing that came out of all this it was that Neema was a wonderful, caring and loving mother to Yao. We’re certain she will demonstrate the same qualities with her future calves,” he added.

A House Call for Yao


Equine orthopedic specialist Dr. Wyatt Winchell of Brazos Valley Equine Hospital paid a house call at the Houston Zoo on Tuesday morning, checking up on Yao, the Zoo’s month old Masai giraffe who is battling a life threatening bone infection.

Assisted by the Zoo’s giraffe care team led by supervisor John Register, Yao was sedated to allow Dr. Winchell to take x-rays of Yao’s left rear hip and right front shoulder and performed a saline flush of Yao’s right front shoulder joint.

“The front shoulder joint is the location of the bone infection,” said Register.  “There is an infection in the left rear hip, but not a bone infection,” added Register.

After the x-rays were taken, Dr. Winchell performed a saline flush of the front shoulder joint. Fluid from the joint was sampled and will be cultured to assess the status of the infection.  Results of the culture are expected in a few days.

“Yao was sedated around 9: 30 a.m. When the sedation was reversed after the procedure he was up and standing by about 10:45 and nursed immediately,” said Register.

Register described the month old giraffe as stable and steady on his feet.  “Yao and his mother Neema enjoyed some quiet time outdoors in the fenced paddock outside the barn by themselves,” said Register.

“Yao is headed in the right direction,” said Dr. Winchell, who added that he is encouraged by what he saw during his house call.

“Yao is being a good patient,” said Register.  “His appetite is good and he’s gaining weight,” he added.

New Baby Giraffe Born!

Our newest and tallest addition, a male Masai giraffe will make his public debut this Saturday, March 2, with his mother at The African Forest giraffe exhibit.  Mom Neema delivered the healthy male calf at approximately 7:10 a.m. on Monday February 25 at the McGovern Giraffe Exhibit following a 14 month pregnancy.

“The calf weighs 62 kilos, about 139 pounds and stands 74 inches tall,” said Houston Zoo Hoofed Stock Supervisor John Register.  Neema is five and a half years old. The proud father, Mtembei is 6 years old.

The Houston Zoo’s giraffe keepers who cared for Neema through her pregnancy have named the calf Yao in honor of former Houston Rockets player Yao Ming. Working with the conservation organization WildAid, Yao Ming has led the world’s largest conservation awareness program spotlighting illegal elephant and rhino poaching in Africa and the shark fin trade in Asia.  Yao toured the Zoo’s giraffe, rhino and elephant exhibits on February 14 with a group of Pasadena ISD middle school students prior to the NBA All Star game at Toyota Center.

“The calf was standing on his own a little over an hour after he was born and was nursing about 4 hours later,” said Register.  With the new arrival the Houston Zoo’s herd of Masai giraffe has grown to 9, including 6 males and 3 females. This is Neema’s first successful birth.  Her first calf was stillborn.

While Masai giraffes are not threatened or endangered in their native habitat, there are only about 100 of the species living in 24 North American zoos.  Giraffes are the tallest living terrestrial animal.  Males average 17 feet in height and can weigh up to 2,500 pounds.  Female Masai giraffes typically reach a height of 14 feet.  At birth, Masai giraffes weigh between 125 and 150 pounds and stand approximately 6 feet tall.

See more photos here:

Look Who is Trading in The Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Meet Hailey Wolfe, self proclaimed Naturalist and Budding Zoologist.  Hailey recently brought in an excellent nature journal to trade titled “The Pros and Cons of Being a Giraffe”.

Hailey’s Giraffe Journal

Hailey is quite the gifted writer and created a journal that reads like a storyteller’s tale.  She begins with a description of feeding the giraffes here at the Houston Zoo that includes beautiful and artistic detail about the giraffe’s long tongue and big, calm eyes.  She invites all to come along with her to learn more about these sweet giants.

She then moves on to giraffes in the wild and completes her journal with information and pictures of the giraffe herd here at the zoo.

Hailey has been trading with us since early this year and has brought in a variety of items including bones, shells and journals.  At 11 years old, she already has quite a knowledge of animals and a talent for writing about them.

Nature Journals are one of many things that can be brought in for trade.  The more time and effort put in to them, the more points a journal will receive.  To see Hailey’s journal and many others, come by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop at the front of the Children’s Zoo.

Don’t know about trading at the Swap Shop?  Click here to find out more.




The Zebras Move in with the Giraffes

Charlie the zebra and Mtembei the giraffe meet for the first time. Suddenly Charlie was presented with an unexpected shift in perspective.

The Houston Zoo has something new in the African Forest – zebra! Our two zebra, Charlie and Image, are joining the giraffe and ostriches in their yard. Monday morning Charlie was introduced to the ostrich and giraffe, and soon Image will join them.

These two zebra have been with the Houston Zoo for many years, and have resided in the West Hoofrun yard alongside several other species, including giant eland, nyala and warthogs. Just last week the nyala Ginger and Niles had a calf, a beautiful brown-haired boy the keepers have dubbed Cashew. He was born at almost exactly the same time as our latest giraffe addition, baby Ghubari, who was born to experienced mom Tyra. (Thanks to everone who participated in the vote to choose the name for this little guy!)

Baby Cashew is healthy and mom is doing a great job of caring for her calf. However, Charlie and Image have been a bit too curious about this new addition to their yard. Charlie in particular has been standing over the calf frequently, whether to offer it some additional protection & shade or out of curiosity, we can only guess. As a result it had become challenging for mom to nurse with a zebra in the way.

So Hoofed Stock Supervisor John Register worked with curator Daryl Hoffman, Vice President Sharon Joseph and Zoo Director Rick Barongi to determine a solution. They brainstormed and evaluated six different options, and concluded that the best solution would be to move the zebra over to join the giraffe.

On Sunday, John and his staff worked to complete the move.  Charlie and Image are senior zebra – Charlie is 29 and Image is 31 years old. Both were offered some special food treats inside the trailer to encourage them to walk in, but only Charlie would go. Image will make the trip soon.

Charlie was given the run of the giraffe yard early Monday morning while the giraffes waited in the barn.  John’s thinking was that Charlie would feel more comfortable with a gradual introduction. The ostrich were the first to meet Charlie.  She seemed curious about the big birds.

At approximately 9:30am John  opened the gate, and the giraffes and Charlie were allowed to meet for the first time. Mtembei, new father and head male of the giraffe herd, was first out to greet Charlie. She was immediately curious and even went into the barn to say hello to her other new yardmates.

Rice University Interns Solve Giraffe Feeder Challenge

Written by Mike Tseng, a summer intern at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership

When people think of giraffes, enrichment is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But these adorable, tall animals need enrichment as much as any other animal!

Acacia Tree

In the wild, giraffes like to eat from tall acacia trees. These trees have thorns which make it difficult for the giraffes to feed from them, and sometimes there are ants living on the trees, which attack the giraffes when they try to feed! However, the giraffes are well equipped to meet these challenges, too! They have flexible, 18-inch long tongues they use to navigate around the thorns on the trees. These tongues also have thick skin to protect them from thorns and ants.


Thorn on acacia tree – ouch!


In the zoo, the giraffes are safe from threats when they are feeding, but they also don’t have many chances to use their wonderful tongues. Scientific research has shown that when giraffes don’t get to use their tongues often, they can become “bored” and may exhibit undesirable behaviors such as licking trees and fences. In order to avoid such behaviors, the zoo wanted to build a feeder that lets the giraffes exercise their tongues more often.


Interns at Rice University build a giraffe feeder


For the past six months, a team of freshman engineers from Rice University have been working on an enrichment feeder that challenges the giraffes by making them use their tongues for longer periods of time. This feeder also needs to look more natural in the giraffes’ exhibit. The current feeder is a plastic barrel covered with bamboo with holes drilled on the sides, and bamboo branches attached to it. The bamboo branches get into the way of the giraffes feeding, just like tree branches would in the real world. Also, holes in this device are just the right size–giraffes can put their tongues into the holes, but can’t put in their whole snouts, so they can’t eat the hay without using their tongues to grab it!

The giraffe feeder was created through a rigorous engineering design process by the Rice University freshmen, and no less than four prototypes were produced before the final feeder was made. Of course, we didn’t want the giraffes to get hurt using these feeders! The first prototypes went through safety tests before the giraffes used them. One was dropped from 12½ feet over 25 times just to prove that it was durable!

Even though the prototype is finished, we still don’t know if the giraffes will actually like it!

Will the giraffes like the new feeder?

Before the project can be completed, the puzzle feeder needs to prove that it indeed enriches the Houston Zoo giraffes. This means increasing feeding time and reducing negative stereotypical behavior in them. In order to prove these things, video clips of the giraffes interacting with the zoo’s cage feeder and our puzzle feeder are being recorded. By comparing the recordings, the Rice University students will be able to know if the giraffe are more enriched by the new feeder.

If you happen to pass by the giraffe exhibit this week, keep your eyes open–you may be able to see the feeder in action! If you’re not going to the zoo, don’t worry; the feeder may also be featured live on the zoo’s giraffe webcam at! You can also follow the Rice University freshmen’s progress on this and many other projects on their blog at

Giraffes eating from the new feeder

Giraffe Birth Details from a Member of the Hoofed Stock Team

Here is an exciting account of the giraffe birth from Ashley Roth of our hoofed stock team.

“Just before 5:00 p.m. on Saturday July 14, 2012 Tyra, our 14 year old female giraffe went into labor. A few short hours later, Tyra successfully gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He was standing on his own about 45 minutes after he was born. The calf weighs 163 pounds and stands about 75.5 inches tall (which is 6ft 3 inches). Though this is calf number seven for Tyra, it is the first calf for our 5 year old male, Mtembei. Mom and calf spent some time off exhibit for the first couple days to allow them time to bond. They have now been introduced to the rest of the giraffe herd and ostriches and will continue to be on exhibit daily.


Prior to the birth, keepers were keeping a close eye on Tyra, knowing that the giraffe gestation period is about 14 months. The keepers knew Tyra could give birth from the second week of July until the beginning of August. Monitoring her udder development was significant in determining how close she was to her due date.  The birth went very smoothly. Tyra began showing signs of labor early in the afternoon and was separated into a holding yard to allow her privacy as well as a safe environment for the calf. Keepers were nearby to monitor her throughout her labor, but were confident that Tyra would do well, as she always has in the past.


As soon as Tyra gave birth, she began grooming her calf periodically while he was lying down. As soon as the calf was on his feet, Tyra was more attentive to cleaning him off. The rest of the giraffe herd stood by, watching everything from the exhibit side of the fence. Mtembei in particular seemed observant while the calf made his attempts to stand on his own. The entire hoofed stock team is delighted to have this new addition to the giraffe herd and look forward to watching him grow. ”












Help Us Name Our Baby Giraffe!

We are proud to announce the birth of a ­­male Masai giraffe. Mom Tyra delivered the healthy male calf shortly before 8 p.m. on July 14. The calf weighs 73 kilos, about 160 pounds and is over 74 inches tall. He’s a strong healthy baby!

Name this baby!

We now need to decide on a name for the little guy. Vote for your favorite name below to help us choose:

[cardoza_wp_poll id=2]

12 Days of Grub: Day 8 – Eight Giraffes a Galloping

On the Eighth Day of Grub, your zoo gift will help to feed…Eight Giraffes a Galloping, Seven Snakes a Slithering, Six Mole-rats Mining, Five Golden Frogs, Four Calling Birds, Three Wild Dogs, Two Grizzly Bears, and Darwin the Cassowary! CLICK HERE to read them all!

What is the best thing to do after your afternoon snack?  Well if you are Asali, the Houston Zoo’s nine-month-old Masai giraffe, the best thing is to gallop.  Nothing feels better than to stretch out those long, long legs.

While it was too hot that afternoon to get the rest of her family involved in the fun, the heat was of no concern to Asali.  Even the ostriches watched in amazement as Asali worked off those calories.

Dinner Time at The Houston Zoo

What is on the menu for the Masai giraffe at Houston Zoo?  Our giraffes enjoy hay, fruits and vegetables, and romaine lettuce.  However, their most favorite food of all time is the vast array of different plant material provided by the horticulture staff at Houston Zoo.  The horticulture staff will search the entire zoo looking for tasty treats for the animals, and since they are so tall, the giraffes are able to see them bringing the food from across the zoo.  The giraffe keepers will then place the branches up really high so that the giraffes have to reach up high for them.

This behavior is exactly the same in the wild.  Giraffes are able to reach very high up in the trees to get the tastiest leaves.  Please come by The Houston Zoo’s African Forest exhibit and watch our herd of Masai giraffes as they explore their exhibit, look for food, lounge in the shade, and of course, stretch out those long giraffe legs.

Written by John Register, Hoofed Stock Supervisor


Help provide tasty and nutritious grub for the Zoo’s giraffes and the rest of our animal family this holiday season: Give the Gift of Grub!

Our thanks to TXU Energy for matching the first $25,000 in donations this year.  That’s a LOT of lettuce!


The Swap Shop Mystery Box Revealed


Mystery Box

Many of you who have been in the Swap Shop recently have seen the very large mystery box.  We are happy to finally announce what was in it!  Thanks to a generous donation from The Junior League of Houston, Inc.,  we now have a complete giraffe skeleton.  This was a 9 foot tall  juvenile male giraffe from Florida and died.  The crate was quite large 6’x3’x2′ and had to be brought into the Shop by fork lift.  The articulator (an expert that assembles skeletons) was here on the evening of Saturday September 17, to put it together. 

Articulator Mike working on the skeleton


During the week the box was here we held a contest to let kids guess what was in the box.  The only clues they had were: 1.  It is a skeleton 2. It is an entire skeleton 3. It may or may not be put together already in the box. 4. It is not an extinct animal.  We had so many wonderful guesses- everything from alligator to long horn to zebra.  We held a drawing Friday September 16,  and Cody Molandes was our winner – guessing that it was a giraffe!  He won 100 points to spend in the Swap Shop for his efforts! 

The finished skeleton

You never know what you’ll see in the Swap Shop.

Dont know about trading in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.


Search Blog & Website
[jetpack_subscription_form title="Subscribe to the Blog" subscribe_text="Enter your email address to subscribe and receive new blog posts by email."]
Houston Zoo Facebook Page
Animals In Action

Recent Videos