Sunday, July 16, 2017

To The Maryland Zoo Team

Oh, Maryland Zoo people....I am so sorry.


For those of you who don't know, Maryland Zoo has had two giraffe births within the past few months.  The latest, a male named Julius, was born on June 15th.  What happened afterwards is a story that so many of us have experienced, but have a lot of trouble not only processing internally, but expressing to people who have no idea what it is like to care for animals in this way.

Our critics often take opportunities where animals are ill, injured, or dying to rake us over the coals.  Most people, even those who do not necessarily support zoos or aquariums, are decent human beings who do NOT leave heartless, cruel Facebook comments about these situations.  However, it is the small minority of thoughtless people who make what is already an incomprehensible loss into a horrendous nightmare.

What a great idea! Everyone is doing it!

In the case of the little giraffe calf, his story played out in a way I think many of this blog’s readers will relate to.  He was born to a loving, doting mother but for whatever reason, Julius did not nurse successfully.  This is not an unusual situation in both captive and wild mammals, especially with mammals whose childhoods are long investments of maternal care. 

When nursing doesn't go as planned in these animals, animal care professionals must weigh their options on how to proceed.  Some facilities choose to let nature take its course, which is of course what happens….in nature.  That is not “good” or “bad”.  Nature is what nature is, it does not care one way or the other how the story ends.  And some well-respected zoological communities feel that it is in the animals’ best interest to experience life as naturally as possible, which might result in a hands-off approach when a baby is failing to thrive. 

Brookfield Zoo staff helping a newborn dolphin

Some facilities choose to intervene if it is a) safe for the humans involved (remember, many of these animals are massive, not to mention mom is not necessarily going to think rationally when someone comes in and messes with her baby who is struggling) and b) in the best interest of the baby him/herself.  Some babies, like bottlenose dolphins, are extremely fragile when they are first born.  They can literally have a heart attack if they get super scared.  Their mom and/or other family members may freak out if something outside of their experience happens after the calf is born, like a pool dropping or attempting to handle their calf (which is why it is so awesome that some marine mammal facilities teach their dolphin moms to do husbandry-related behaviors that entail scenarios commonly encountered in intervening with a neonatal calf).  Big dolphins freaking out around brand new babies can result in fatal injuries to the baby.  

So it isn't an easy decision to make with large mammals, because there are a lot of factors to consider on top of what the baby him/herself is going through medically.  

Once a decision is made to intervene, everyone remotely involved with the department is usually scheduled for some grueling Waffle House shifts.  Waffle House shifts.  You know, because the only place that you can guarantee will be open to feed you no matter what time you get off, no matter what you are wearing, no matter what you smell like, is good ol' Waffle House.

Some places will recruit help from other animal departments, or ask for volunteers depending on how the facility is organized.  This might mean you work 12 hour shifts.  Maybe you work your normal eight or ten hour day, and then come into work in the middle of the night for a few hours, then get up a few hours later to do it again.  Chances are, your weekends and vacation plans are cancelled.   Your life becomes work and sleeping (where and when you can) and little else for the indefinite future.

Your life is one big Waffle House shift

Why is this? Well, in general, most critical cases require consistent medical treatment.  Medication courses may have to be given at certain times through the day and night.  For example, I worked with a dolphin who had an abscess on her lung.  The course of her antibiotics required a 24 hour feeding schedule for many, many weeks that needed to be strictly adhered to, because lung infections are not easy to treat (and she made a fully recovery, so happy ending to that story!).  Other types of medical therapies may require multiple treatments within a 24 hour period, too.  Continuous observation is usually a part of this as well, which means an alert staff member or two is watching the animal for any changes in behavior.  Try staying awake in the middle of the night for 8 to 12 hour shifts never taking your eyes off the animal in your care, unless you have to use the bathroom.  

But when a baby needs critical care, this requires even more effort.  Even if the baby is 100% healthy, her or she needs to eat regularly…more than an adult or juvenile would.  Human moms know what I’m talking about.  Infants and babies in many non-precocial mammal species go through a period I like to call The Red Zone where they basically eat, sleep, and poop in 2 to 4 hour cycles, pausing not a wink for their moms/dads/guardians to catch up.  If a giraffe isn't able to nurse properly from mom, then humans take over mom’s role. 

MD Zoo staff bottle feed Julius

Feeding a baby in this way is not as easy as it seems in the movies, either.  You don't just provide a bottle, snuggle with the baby as he or she feeds lazily in your arms, and then upload all your adorable selfies to your Insta account.  No.  You have to MAKE the formula (oh my GOD and if it’s a dolphin calf, there is usually some amount of fish oil involved which gets everywhere and you will never, ever smell like a human being again, sorry).  You have to account for every calorie; this is not just a simple “dump the powder into the water and shake shake shake and eyeball the amount eaten” situation.  Every. Calorie. Counts.  You make the formula, you pour it into whatever feeding device you’re going to us, and then you triple-check the amount before, during, and after each feeding.

This is an insanely emotionally challenging time for EVERYONE involved, human and animal alike.  Baby animals in critical condition brings its own sort of emotional torment, because it isn't uncommon for them to start to really rely on their human caregivers for all of the other needs he/she would be getting from mom, (or in alloparenting species,o ther members of the herd/pod/pride/whatever).  Social mammals NEED social contact, and not just for touchy-feely reasons.  Loving physical contact paired with creating a sense of security has a direct impact on healthy development.  If baby is surrounded by loving human caregivers, baby will start relying on those caregivers (in full or in part) to provide that contact and security.


So now you have a critically ill baby, who relies on YOU 100% for every need he/she has.  No worthy keeper takes this responsibility lightly.  Most of us fall head over heels in love and toss our life’s plans aside as we work ourselves to death to try to help this little life.  After only a couple of days, the only way we can get through our day is the time we spend with the animals.  But when we get downtime, we fall into tortured sleep filled with nightmares or we pass out into a restless state of unconsciousness until we return back to work, hopeful that the tides have turned in the baby’s favor.

It is an indescribable feeling to see a baby who was previously not doing well suddenly turn the corner and flourish.  Life slowly gets back to “normal”.  Everyone is happy.

But sometimes, the baby is too good for this world.  Such was the case with Julius.  It is especially hard when you know that they are not going to get better, especially when it is a long, slow road to that fate.

<3 <3 <3

So now I'm going to directly address all of you who worked with this little calf….but to anyone reading this who has been through a similar situation, this applies to you, too.

Maryland Zoo team Julius peeps, you are amazing.  I mean, it’s amazing enough that you did literally EVERYTHING remotely possible for that little guy.  Not only did you do everything you could for Julius, you set an example for how this kind of situation should be treated.  Keeping the wellness of Julius as your North Star, you balanced his needs with the possibilities available.  Not only that, you kept the public aware of what you were doing.  They got a look into what it takes to provide that level of care to a wild animal calf.  I mean, people in my forensics lab were talking about it with a tremendous amount of respect and concern.  

I know what it is like to watch a baby move in the wrong direction.  I know how heart-wrenching that is, especially when you start to second-guess decisions you have made, or ones you may have to make.  THEN, no matter how hard you try to cement yourself to the soulless comments about Julius and zoos and what you do for a living, you still somehow read or hear a comment that frays your last nerve and breaks you down, when you've been barely holding on. 

Look at this incredible group of people!

But listen to me.  All that matters is what you did for Julius, no matter what role you played.  Here is what he needed: Love, security, basic physical needs met, and medical treatment.  Here is what you gave him: Love, security, basic physical needs met, and medical treatment. 

The experience that little giraffe calf had is impossible to know for sure, but logically let’s think about this.  Even if he didn’t feel well or physically comfortable as his health declined, all of his needs were met.  He did not have to spend a moment afraid.  He did not have to spend a moment unloved.  We know that is not often the case in animals in the wild in similar situations.  

The emotional torment you guys experienced with him, and are dealing with now in a different way, is NOT what he experienced.  If Julius gets to fill out a survey in the afterlife about his time on earth, his “Additional comment” section would probably say something like, “I got lots of love and I was basically a social media giant.  Would recommend.”

And I agree with this review!

No matter what your internal conversation is with how everyone played out, or how hard it is to read media coverage and see the disgusting comments below the articles….that does not change the fact that Julius lived and died, fully and completely loved.  THAT is why you guys get up each morning.  If you feel unappreciated, know that I bet Julius and his mom appreciated what you did.   Know that the awful comments you're reading are just words typed quickly on a keyboard....which is NOTHING compared to the weight of the work you did to care for an animal in his greatest time of need.

Know that the rest of us in the zoo field appreciated what you did.  We stand in solidarity with you. 

A giraffe, a dolphin, a lemur, a caiman…I don't care what animal you care for, we know that they all deserve to feel secure and loved, in whatever way they perceive those things.  It is never easy to provide that in medically critical situations, and yet time and again we do it.  We know our hearts will be ripped out, that we may have nightmares about it for years to come, but those consequences do not stop us from being there 100% for animals who not only NEED that level of care, but DESERVE IT.

Thinking of you, Maryland Zoo. 

Rest in peace, little guy.


  1. Awesome as always Cat, thank you for caring!

  2. An excellent tribute and salute to those that really do care.

  3. THANK YOU TEAM JULIUS for your diligent and resilient efforts!!! never forget - Julius appreciated every minute of it!!! #BlessUJulius #BlessEachOneofhisKEEPERS & TEAM JULIUS #HeavensAngel & THANK YOU FOR ALL U Do each day for these precious animals that we LOVE SO VERY MUCH!!! Each one of you deserve a #CROWN!!! #LoveHugstoeachofYou!!!

  4. There are not enough words to say how thankful we are for all that you did. It is so obvious the love and dedication you have in your hearts of gold for these precious creatures. You all are Angels in my book. God Bless you all!!

  5. Thank you Cat for expressing so eloquently the love and care animals in zoos and aquariums receive every day. To those who have no idea and leave cruel messages, YOU HAVE NO IDEA! Read this and become better educated.