'We are heartbroken.' Young giraffe calf dies despite extensive rescue efforts at Seneca Park Zoo

Seneca Park Zoo's Masai giraffe program has suffered another tragic loss.

Calf Parker Junior, known as PJ, died suddenly Feb. 17 after having what appeared to be a seizure, the zoo announced Feb. 20.

Veterinarians from the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine performed a necropsy (or animal autopsy) on Feb. 18 and found the cause to be encephalitis, an infection of the tissues around the brain, zoo officials said in a statement.

The infection, which appears to be bacterial, also affected tissues in the liver and umbilical region, the statement said, adding that there had been no signs of swelling in those areas, and PJ did not have a fever.

Born to adult female Masai giraffe Kipenzi, who has a malignant tumor on her jaw, PJ showed signs of being lame in his left rear leg Dec. 24.

From December 2023: Masai giraffe calves Parker Junior, or PJ, and Pippi interact in their Seneca Park Zoo enclosure.
From December 2023: Masai giraffe calves Parker Junior, or PJ, and Pippi interact in their Seneca Park Zoo enclosure.

The symptoms indicated tendonitis or a potential nerve issue, zoo officials and experts from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums agreed.

PJ received non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs for the swelling, and his condition was improving, the statement said.

On Feb. 14, he suddenly showed signs of lameness in his right rear leg. Veterinary staff again consulted with AZA experts.

Anti-inflammatory medication didn’t improve his condition, so antibiotics were started.

On Feb. 16, he showed further signs of decline and was sedated for bloodwork and x-rays and given additional broad-spectrum antibiotics, pain medication and vitamin injections.

Test results showed signs of inflammation but did not reveal an underlying cause.

Then, on Feb. 17, he died suddenly after veterinary teams observed what they believed to be a seizure.

Recognizing that giraffes are sentient beings, Kipenzi was given access to PJ’s  body after he died so she could grieve, zoo veterinarian Dr. Chris McKinney said at a Feb. 20 press conference.

Initially, Kipenzi showed signs of stress, he said. “We’re keeping a very close eye on her. The first day, she ate a little less. That’s when she was the most affected. And each day she gets a little calmer,” he said.

And even though the squamous cell carcinoma on her jaw continues to grow, generally, she is doing well, the zoo's statement said.

In addition, there is no correlation between her condition and PJ’s death.

PJ was Kipenzi’s second calf fathered by adult male Parker. Her first, born July 12, 2022, and also a male, was euthanized at 3 weeks old after multiple interventions to correct a congenital abnormality of his left front fetlock joint failed.

Parker died in February 2023 after getting his neck caught in a support structure of a giraffe enclosure gate.

The zoo’s other adult female Masai giraffe, Iggy, gave birth to her first calf, Olmsted, or Olmy, on April 29, 2022. He too was fathered by Parker.

On Dec. 13, 2023, she gave birth to a female calf, Pippi, also fathered by Parker.

“PJ was with us for too short a time, and we are heartbroken,” David Hamilton, the zoo’s general curator, said in the statement. “He loved playing with Pippi and interacting with Animal Care staff. He brought us a lot of joy.”

Giraffe infant mortality in the wild is about 50%, and a little lower in captivity, zoo director Steve Lacy said during the press conference. Overall, “This is a very fragile species.”

He said despite a "string of unrelated, tragic" incidents involving zoo giraffes, "We have confidence in our program. Our program provides animals with amazing care."

Said AZA President and CEO Dan Ashe in the statement, “The incidents involving (Seneca Park Zoo’s) giraffe program are heartbreaking,” but, “We are confident that the Seneca Park Zoo is taking every action to assure the care of their animals and to learn from this tragic loss.”

Reporter Marcia Greenwood covers general assignments. Send story tips to mgreenwo@rocheste.gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaGreenwood.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Young giraffe calf dies despite extensive rescue efforts at Seneca Park Zoo