Ask any woman who’s had a baby, and she can tell you about the chagrin of those late pregnancy weekly weigh-ins. Autumn the giraffe knows the feeling.
The long-necked mom-to-be has gained about 300 pounds during her 15-month-long pregnancy, 140 pounds of that in the last six months. She will lose about 120 pounds any day now when she gives birth to her second calf.
Dr. Heather Miller, veterinarian and deputy director for animal health at the zoo, said Autumn’s due date was estimated to be Aug. 5, measured 15 months after the last breeding behavior observed by zookeepers. But it’s normal for giraffe pregnancies to last anywhere from 14 to 16 months.
“We’re in that window right now,” she said.
Online viewers have been watching EarthCam’s live streaming of Greenville Zoo’s giraffe barn and paddock with bated breath, hoping to catch sight of the birth. The expected calf’s sibling, Kiko, had a live online audience of more than 200,000 for his arrival in October 2012.
Miller joked that waiting for the giraffe baby isn’t unlike having one of her own. She and other zoo leaders set their alarms for middle-of-the-night Giraffe Cam checks to watch for signs of labor.
“I’ll get up at 2 (a.m.) and check it, and (zoo director) Jeff (Bullock) will get up at 4 (a.m.) and check it,” she said.
What they’re watching for are a wide stance with raised tail, a telltale sign that Autumn is experiencing contractions.
“She has had some false labor contractions and she’ll do that by taking a wide-base stance and kind of looking like she’s bracing herself,” Miller said. “We’re looking for them to stay prolonged and for her to keep having contractions.”
There have been some false alarms over the past couple of weeks, including one recent Saturday night when Miller and Bullock were convinced it was time, but the apparent contractions faded.
Once things get going for real, Autumn’s active labor will likely last less than six hours, far shorter than human births.
“It’s quite a bit shorter for them. That’s probably an adaptation to being in the wild because they can’t be out of the game for 24 hours,” Miller said.
And the calf should arrive front legs and nose first, a dive-like position that makes for a face-first landing.
Autumn’s prenatal care has been primarily about observation, including keeping an eye out for the wiggles and contortions in her abdomen that have been visible since late June.
“Every morning they are looking for fetal movement, and we usually do see some pretty big kicks,” Miller said.
Autumn isn’t yet trained to submit to an ultrasound (though zookeepers are working on that with an eye toward the next pregnancy), so zoo staff have tracked occasional blood work and the giraffe’s behavior and diet.
Other than an uptick in pacing, Miller said Autumn’s behavior hasn’t changed much as her delivery draws near.
The ability to weigh Autumn as she has progressed through her pregnancy is a new feature at the zoo. The funds for the scale were raised through special events surrounding the arrival of Autumn’s first calf, Kiko.
Autumn has been separated from her mate, Walter, and Kiko for the last few weeks and will remain so for a few weeks after the birth. It’s mainly a precaution for the safety of the infant, since giraffes, while not aggressive, can be clumsy, Miller said.
Eight-year-old Autumn and her mate, Walter are Masai giraffes, the largest subspecies of giraffe, found in southern Kenya and Tanzania. The pair came to Greenville in 2007 and will likely remain here for the rest of their lives.
Zoos try not to move giraffes once they’re adults, Miller said, since the logistics of transporting a 16-foot-tall animal are rather challenging.
The giraffe breeding program at the Greenville Zoo is managed through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan program.
Kiko, whose arrival was marked by an outpouring of interest and enthusiasm from the community and beyond, turns 2 in a couple of months. He started life just under 6 feet tall and 120 pounds.
He’s now 960 pounds and stands 11
Once the new calf is born, a special event will be held to introduce him or her to the community and announce the selected name. The Friends of the Greenville Zoo’s naming contest will continue until the birth.