Zoo officials: Giraffe died after fall

Sharna Johnson

Clovis zoo keepers believe Jay the giraffe slipped on ice and fell, suffering a head injury. That injury followed by exposure to cold prompted a decision to euthanize him.

The giraffe was found Saturday on the ground of his pen around 7:30 a.m. with a wound to his head that was, “bleeding profusely,” said Parks and Recreation Director Bill Bizzell.

“There was ice on the ground and there was an indication that he had slipped and fell into the fence… he was completely disoriented (when we found him), there was no response,” he said.

“I’m sure he knocked himself out when he hit the fence.”

The ice was located outside a heated enclosure maintained for the zoo’s giraffes.

Bizzell said staff found a segment of fence covered in blood spatter and nearby ice on the ground, indicating when he slipped, he crashed into the fence.

Disoriented and probably unable to get back to his feet, Bizzell said it is believed Jay’s injury was complicated by cold temperatures.

Bizzell said approximately 12-hours elapsed between the last time Jay was seen behaving normally the night prior, and the time he was discovered.

Zoo officials do not know when he was injured or how long he was on the ground, Bizzell said.

The giraffe enclosure is fenced with pipe iron and heavy gauge, welded mesh panels.

Jay weighed 2,000 pounds and stood 16-feet-tall, according to Zoo Director Herschel Arnold, who said a fall for an animal of that size can have catastrophic results, especially if it is unable to get back on its feet and alleviate weight on its organs.

Animals of a giraffe’s size are vulnerable to muscle and organ damage when they are lying down in the manner Jay was, he said.

Cold temperatures became a factor, Arnold said, after Jay was unable to rise.

Animals are checked each night and in the morning by a zoo keeper who lives on the grounds, with special attention given to exotic or at-risk animals, Arnold said.

Bizzell said Jay came to Clovis from Ohio where he lived for 10 years, in a more extreme cold climate than Clovis and had acclimated well to his enclosure at the zoo.

“He knew cold weather and warm weather,” zoo keeper Mark Yanotti said, describing the giraffe as, “well traveled.”

When his Ohio handlers delivered Jay to Clovis in October, Bizzell said they had an opportunity to look over the enclosure and set-up and were complimentary of the design.

Jay and his female companion Jael had access to an enclosed heated barn — equipped with an industrial, forced air heater which maintained a temperature of 55 to 60 degrees — and they used it regularly, going in and out freely, according to Arnold.

Bizzell said the temperament of Jael meant confinement was not an option because the 6-year-old Carlsbad-born giraffe has a tendency toward stress and could have injured herself or Jay. However with the free choice set-up, he said the pair did a good job of regulating their temperature needs.

Jay, once owned by Disney, was kept by the International Animal Exchange in Ohio before the city purchased him in October.

He was purchased for $30,500 — $25,000 for Jay and $5,500 for his transportation from IAE. The Citizen’s Bank of Clovis donated $15,000 towards the purchase, and the remaining cost was paid by the city.

He was purchased with the intention of becoming a breeding partner with Jael.

After Jay’s death, Bizzell said Jael was visibly upset and anxious, but has since returned to normal.

Bizzell said the staff at the Clovis zoo is devastated.

“The zoo staff is in grieving. Our zoo staff cares for those animals like they’re their own children,” he said. “We’re all devastated. This was a great loss, for not only the community but also the zoo staff.”

City Manager Joe Thomas said the city plans to bring in an expert from a larger zoo to evaluate the giraffe accommodations to ensure there is nothing the zoo needs to be doing differently.

“I have complete confidence in our staff, but we have an obligation to investigate further,” he said.

Thomas said it was the opinion of veterinarians that nothing would be gained by an autopsy and Jay was buried at the landfill.

According to accuweather.com, high temperatures for Tuesday through Friday were 11, 7, 17 and 41 degrees, respectively, with corresponding low temperatures of 0, -5, -8 and -1 degrees.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends giraffes be placed inside if temperatures drop to less than 50 degrees.