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Thursday, Oct 18, 2018
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Rare okapi calf born at ZooTampa has died

A rare baby okapi calf, an endangered distant relative of the giraffe, has died less than two months after she was born at ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

The zoo broke the sad news on Thursday, saying laboratory tests suggest the female okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee) had a condition similar to diabetes and died from acute renal failure.

The zoo announced the birth of the shy endangered animal, with legs that looked like they were sporting knee socks, with much pride on Aug. 28. Parents Betty and Zach arrived at the Tampa zoo in 2006 and are part of the Species Survival Plan of the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums. Veterinarians tended to Betty's prenatal care with regular ultrasounds and a unique milk-testing method found helpful in horses and rhinoceros.

"This was a pretty devastating loss, no doubt about it," said Ray Ball, the senior veterinarian at the zoo. "We had put a considerable effort into watching Betty in her prenatal care. We knew she was an older girl and as far as we all knew, things were looking pretty good. But something turned on us."

The solitary chocolate brown animals with a face resembling a giraffe and zebra-like striped legs are native to the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where conflict and human encroachment have reduced their numbers to an estimated 10,000 to 35,000.

The birth of the animal sometimes called a forest giraffe drew much-needed attention to an endangered species, the zoo said at the time.

While the calf reached milestones, such as standing on her own and nursing, she was less than six weeks old. Her blood tests shortly after her birth had glucose levels that were off the charts, Ball said, causing zookeepers to retest her to make sure it was real. Neither of the parents have it, Ball said, calling the condition "extraordinarily novel" for the species.

Zoo staff noticed the calf had developed diarrhea last Wednesday and were monitoring her. But she went downhill fast.

"By Thursday morning the calf was getting lethargic and looking depressed and blood samples started to come in and that showed, wow this little girl needs some attention," Ball said, "and by that afternoon she was gone."

High levels of glucose create complex changes that can cause bleeding and renal failure, Ball said, and that's what caused her death.

Rather than whisking the dead calf way, the staff left the baby in the okapi habitat area of the zoo with Betty, "so she would understand," Ball said. She tried to stimulate it and nothing happened, he said, and she has shown how remarkably resilient animals are in the face of loss.

At age 18, Betty has gotten too old to safely have another calf, Ball said.

"She's had five calves in 10 years, so she's done her duty as far as advancing the population," Ball said. "Betty's getting to be an older girl, and she needs to retire."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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