Houston Zoo's baby giraffe 'Yao' dies after contracting infection

Yao, the baby giraffe at the Houston Zoo, is improving after a life-threatening bone infection

April 19, 2013 1:23:47 PM PDT
A young giraffe at the Houston Zoo has died following a battle with a deadly bone infection.

The seven-week-old giraffe, who was named 'Yao,' was euthanized Friday morning after a month-long battle with a bone infection in his right shoulder and left hip. Vet staff immediately began an aggressive treatment after the infection was discovered, but it wasn't enough.

"The x-rays indicated Yao's right shoulder had stabilized," said Dr. Wyatt Winchell, an equine orthopedic specialist who had been treating Yao. "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."

"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 for Yao marked by life-long chronic pain."

That's when zoo officials decided to sedate the giraffe.

The baby Masai giraffe was born at the zoo February 25. A week later, keepers noticed he was exhibiting signs of a minor sprain in his back left leg. When the limp worsened, veterinarians X-rayed the leg but found no evidence of bone damage. He was put on antibiotics and other preventative medication including anti-inflammatory analgesics.

But his condition was not improving, so the zoo called in Dr. Wyatt Winchell of the Brazos Valley Equine Hospital to examine the baby giraffe more carefully. That's when the life-threatening disease was discovered. The giraffe's joint had to be flushed immediately and then he underwent an arthroscopic surgery to remove some tissue and infected bone.

"Similar cases in domestic animals are difficult to treat and correct but we are doing everything possible to give him a chance to recover," said Dr. Wyatt Winchell of the Brazos Valley Equine Hospital. "He is being kept inside the giraffe barn with his mother Neema and receiving excellent round-the-clock care from his keepers and veterinarians," added Dr. Winchell.

The giraffe seemed to be improving after a surgery last week but then the X-rays taken this week showed the permanent damage.

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