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Long odds for 6-month-old giraffe

Kyah, a 6-month-old giraffe at the Oklahoma City Zoo, will undergo a radical surgery early next week that Oklahoma State University veterinarians hope will save her life.
by Matt Patterson Modified: April 4, 2014 at 2:00 pm •  Published: April 3, 2014

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.

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by Matt Patterson
Matt Patterson has been with The Oklahoman since 2006. Prior to joining the news staff in 2010, Patterson worked in The Oklahoman's sports department for five years. He previously worked at The Lawton Constitution and The Edmond Sun....
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