The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is synonymous with giraffes. Just look at their logos and marketing materials.
All point to the one-of-a-kind animal encounter, a groundbreaking first for a public zoo when the African Rift Valley exhibit which opened in 2003. Zoo visitors can feed lettuce leaves to the giraffes from a raised walkway.
“It’s awesome,” said Kinzi Pearson. “It’s so cool they let you feed them.”
Kinzi and her mother Kathy are visiting from Texas. This is their second trip to the zoo.
“They’re just so majestic,” Kathy said.
Nearby, Jamie Stevens and her kids Chase and Cassie were also feeding the giraffes. The family lives in Denver and said their giraffe exhibit at home is nothing like what Colorado Springs has to offer.
“They don’t come up like this and they really don’t let you do any of this so this is a really good experience,” she said.
The popularity of the zoo’s giraffes explains why Tuesday was such a difficult day. The newest addition to the herd, Penny, had to be humanely euthanized last night.
“It is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said zoo president and CEO Robert Chastain.
Shortly after she was born in early June, Penny suffered a hip injury when she splayed. The dislocation led to an abscess in her femur. She was no longer able to nurse, so zookeepers took to bottle feeding the calf. At first, she wouldn’t eat because the bottle wasn’t hairy.
“This keeper took her ponytail out and draped her hair in front of her face and fed Penny the bottle through her hair and that was the beginning night when Penny was able started to be able to drink,” Chastain said.
Things had been looking up for Penny. She showed up in a number of social media posts wearing braces on her front legs. But then, blood tests taken over the weekend showed elevated white blood cell counts, an indication of increasing infection.
Penny was taken to Colorado State University where veterinarians performed what Chastain said was the first ever CT scan of a giraffe.
“Her abscess was much worse than we thought,” Chastain said. “It was starting to look like it was getting into the abdomen, it was deep into the hip joint and what they could also tell was that the infection had moved into three of the four legs.”
The doctors suggested a complicated femur replacement surgery. Chastain said it was very risky.
“They had good luck with ponies and miniature horses doing that procedure but only one horse over 400 kilograms had ever survived that surgery and went on to live a healthy life.”
Even under the best conditions, he said Penny would have only lived another year.
It was hard news to take, especially for the zookeepers who bonded with Penny.
Longtime zoo member Kelly DeBardelaben knew the emotional strain the staff was facing.
“I just want to hug their necks and cry with them, there are no words to say,” she said.
The giraffe exhibit remains open. However, the barn will be closed for a few days. A box was set out on a table near the door to the enclosure to receive cards and notes of condolence.
Chastain hopes this experience will connect more people with wild animals.
“That is our primary job is to help people fall in love with animals so that they’ll help conserve them in the wild,” he said.
There is another pregnant giraffe at the zoo and Chastain said keepers are anxiously awaiting the birth.