Kyah, a 6-month-old giraffe at the Oklahoma City Zoo, is growing up fast.
She eats as much as any giraffe her age and she likes to kick her heels up in the giraffe yard. Few animals at the zoo are more photogenic. But for Kyah, growing up has also created a struggle for her life.
She is suffering from what zoo staff and a team of veterinarians at Oklahoma State University believe is a persistent right aortic arch.
As she has grown, a vessel in her heart has wrapped around her esophagus, the path that takes food from her mouth to her stomach. With each passing day the vessel coils a little tighter. That means eating solid foods has become impossible. This all comes at a time when her mother, Ellie, is trying to wean her.
“She is still nursing but she can’t eat solids,” zoo veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino said. “We’re getting into a critical time period because she isn’t going to be able to eat if she isn’t nursing.”
Surgery is possible, but it will be fraught with risk. Early next week, Kyah will be taken to OSU in a specially outfitted trailer on loan from another zoo. It will have extra padding and will be outfitted with a camera system so she can be monitored along the way.
She will then undergo a CT scan to pinpoint exactly where the problem is and how the vessel is positioned around the esophagus. Surgery will follow immediately on an operating table typically used for horses. If all goes well, the giraffe could recover in a month. But there are many roadblocks ahead, zoo officials said.
An instant favorite
Even though the giraffe was only a few hours old, Jaimee Flinchbaugh said she knew Kyah would be different than her brother, Sergeant Peppers. Kyah wasn’t shy about coming up to the fence to meet zoo staff. Her older brother was much more reserved, often hiding behind his mother.
“She’s very charismatic, spunky and very spirited,” said Flinchbaugh, the zoo’s hoofstock supervisor. “She’ll let you know if she doesn’t like something. She’ll give you a ‘how dare you’ look. She’s a fighter, a fun little girl.”
While Kyah is not a pet, bonds are formed between keepers and animals. Flinchbaugh remains optimistic about Kyah’s future, but the worry is present. She will be in Stillwater for the surgery.
“It’s a pretty serious situation for her,” Flinchbaugh said. “I’m a little bit scared, but I have faith in our vet team, OSU’s team and everyone else who will be involved.”
First signs seemed harmless
When the giraffe was 6 weeks old, zoo staff began noticing that Kyah would occasionally regurgitate her mother’s milk. This isn’t particularly abnormal for giraffes, D’Agostino said. But over time, the bouts with throwing up became more frequent.
“We didn’t think a whole lot of that because it can happen from time to time if they get a big gulp of milk,” D’Agostino said. “We felt like she was doing OK. She was growing and whatever it was she would grow out of it.”
When she started eating solid foods, the condition became chronic.
“Every time she ate the solid foods it would immediately come right back up and she would start shaking her head,” D’Agostino said. “You could tell she didn’t feel good. That pinpointed us to a problem with her esophagus.”
An endoscopy was conducted. A scope long enough to reach the bottom of her esophagus was loaned to the zoo by OSU. The piece of equipment is typically used on horses.
“We put the scope down her esophagus as far as we could and we found a blockage at the base, where her heart would also be,” D’Agostino said.
The condition is more commonly seen in dogs and cats. This is the first known example of a giraffe with a persistent right aortic arch, zoo officials said.
One shot to save her life
The risks associated with Kyah’s surgery are numerous. There could be a problem with the surgery itself. Anesthetizing a 520-pound animal with a long neck is complicated, zoo officials said. Giraffes also have high blood pressure, which is necessary to pump the blood from their hearts up their long necks.
There are risks of infection and also that her esophagus may never completely return to functioning normally even if the surgery is a success. Even considering all of those risks, the surgery is her only chance to survive.
“Not to be cavalier about it, but we don’t have a lot to lose in this case,” Oklahoma State University veterinarian and professor Mark Rochat said. “She’s not going to survive if the surgery isn’t done.”
Kyah will be on her side during the surgery. Her chest will be opened up, as will the sack around her heart. The vessel will then be removed by cutting it away.
Rochat has performed about a dozen surgeries like the one he will attempt on Kyah, along with another OSU veterinary surgeon and professor, Danielle Dugat. There will also be another surgeon on standby and the zoo’s five-person veterinary staff will assist. A walk-through was conducted last week at OSU.
Rochat is currently contributing to a research project on arthritis in dogs. Operating on a high-profile animal that happens to be a giraffe might be daunting to some, but his confidence is as obvious as it is essential.
“Part of being a vet is dealing with the differences in species,” he said. “Cats are not quite like dogs, dogs are not quite like horses, but in some ways they are the same. The hard part is getting in there. The actual removal probably won’t be that different than the domestic species we work on.”
The recovery process is more complicated, however. Zoo staff will take Kyah back to Oklahoma City following the surgery. She’ll be placed in the giraffe barn at the zoo alongside her mother. Zoo staff can manage her pain but will have to remain relatively hands off.
That’s why Kyah’s pain will be managed, but she will not be made pain-free intentionally following the surgery.
“We will try to prevent infection and control her pain the best we can,” D’Agostino said. “The thing that will be a challenge is that if you give them lots of pain meds they may not want to eat. They may get sleepy and may not want to stand up. Giraffes need to stand up. We also need her to be able to nurse so she can eat. We also don’t want to completely remove her pain because she may start wanting to run around and play and rip open her incision.”
Playing the percentages
Because this type of surgery has never been attempted on a giraffe, it’s difficult to assess her chances of making it through the surgery and recovery. But if she does make it, the chances of her living a normal life are good, officials said.
“I don’t really know what the percentage is,” D’Agostino said. “I think it’s a 50-50 shot, but I think that’s her best-case scenario. Nobody has attempted anything like this in a giraffe so it’s very hard to say. But I know whatever her chances are they are better than zero, which is what she would have if we did nothing.”
Rochat also doesn’t know what to make of her chances.
“The best we can tell this has never been tried,” he said. “We just don’t know yet. There will be challenges in her recovery process as well. It’s trailblazing.”