Cheyenne Mountain Zoo giraffes are guinea pigs

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Twiga gets a new pair of "shoes" to help with her arthritis. - COURTESY CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN ZOO
  • Courtesy Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
  • Twiga gets a new pair of "shoes" to help with her arthritis.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has long been known for its giraffe breeding program, but now it's making a name for itself in medical research involving stem cells and giraffes.

Here's the explanation via a news release from the zoo:
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is proud to announce two medical breakthroughs in giraffe veterinary care.
The Zoo’s veterinary and animal care teams have utilized both stem cell transfusion therapy and custom-made urethane “sneakers” to treat giraffe here at the Zoo. The efforts are led by Dr. Liza Dadone, vice president of mission and programs and head veterinarian for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Dr. Dadone and staff of the Colorado State University James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital were able to grow stem cells from giraffe blood to then inject back into the giraffe – a treatment for giraffe that is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Mahali, the 14-year-old male giraffe treated, suffered from chronic lameness and had not been moving well, despite a number of medications and additional treatments the animal care and veterinary teams gave him. Dr. Dadone decided on a ground-breaking stem cell injection treatment plan. In scientific studies, stem cell therapy has proven to repair damaged tissue at the cellular level.

It’s been nearly a month since the procedure, when Dr. Dadone and the Zoo team, along with the partnership of the CSU veterinary medicine program, injected Mahali with around 100 million stem cells. The success of the procedure was determined by Dr. Dadone when she reviewed and compared thermographic images taken of Mahali’s front legs before and after the procedure. The photos show a considerable decline in inflammation in Mahali’s front left leg, which is the one he had been having issues with for some time.

“This is meaningful to us not only because it is the first time a giraffe has been treated with stem cells, but especially because it is bringing Mahali some arthritis relief and could help other giraffe in the near future,” Dr. Dadone said.

Dr. Dadone said she is not sure if Mahali’s positive results are simply due to the stem cell therapy or are a combination of different treatments, but she’s pleased and assured his quality of life has dramatically improved.

“Prior to the procedure, he was favoring his left front leg and would lift that foot off the ground almost once per minute,” Dr. Dadone said. “During the immobilization, we did multiple treatments that included hoof trims, stem cell therapy and other medications. Since then, Mahali is no longer constantly lifting his left front leg off the ground and has resumed cooperating for hoof care. A few weeks ago, he returned to life with his herd, including yard access. On the thermogram, the marked inflammation up the leg has mostly resolved.”

Another Zoo giraffe, 14-year-old female Twiga, has advanced arthritis and osteoporosis in her feet. Dr. Dadone and the veterinary team have been monitoring and treating her condition for some time, but were hopeful when they heard of a farrier specialist who had an idea to make custom shoes for her.

“We’ve had Twiga on medicine to help reverse her osteoporosis, but we wanted to do more to protect her feet. So with the help of the farriers, we gave her ‘giraffe sneakers’ to help give her some extra cushion,” said Dr. Dadone.

To get the “sneakers” onto Twiga’s feet, the keepers cued Twiga to place her hoof on a specially-designed hoof block, then farriers Steve Foxworth and Chris Niclas of the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization (ELPO) did a routine hoof trim to the foot, a procedure Foxworth performs monthly. Once her foot was clean and ready, the shoe was placed on her sole by Niclas with quick-drying glue. The “sneakers” are divided on the undersides and were designed by Niclas to adjust to Twiga’s individual digits.

Dr. Dadone said the change in Twiga’s behavior was immediate. Twiga instantly shifted her weight off of her right foot, indicating she was comfortable and her pain had considerably lessened. The shoes help to stabilize Twiga and will likely stay on for around six weeks. Dr. Dadone says they will reassess Twiga’s progress at that time.

She is eager to share information regarding this treatment option so that other veterinary teams at fellow zoos can use this technique to help benefit their animals as well.

Large animals like giraffe are susceptible to issues like arthritis and osteoporosis, mainly stemming from their sheer size. Like all animals, these issues are exacerbated as they age.

“So much of it just relates to the pure mechanics of weighing a ton,” Dr. Dadone said.

Other regular veterinary treatments include X-ray imaging, laser therapy, hoof care and more.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is not only a leader in the training and health of giraffe in human care, but they are also making a huge difference in conservation of giraffe in the wild. The status of giraffe was recently changed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from “least concern” to “vulnerable,” acknowledging the fact that their population in the wild has plummeted by 40 percent in the last 30 years.

Last year, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s guests and members used their Quarters for Conservation (Q4C) admission contributions to send $26,000 to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and its efforts to help the Rothschild’s giraffe in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is home to the world’s most prolific captive reticulated giraffe herd, with 199 births at the Zoo since 1954. Guests can get up close and hand-feed them on special indoor and outdoor elevated platforms anytime during the day, 365 days a year.


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