At least for the keepers of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, National Zookeeper Week got off to a pretty awful start.
The giraffe keepers at Baltimore had spent the last month in a desperate struggle to save the life of Julius, a male calf who had failed to obtain necessary antibodies from his mother and was fading fast. The keepers at Baltimore engaged in Herculean efforts. They were supported by two other facilities - Cheyenne Mountain and Columbus - who rushed them plasma for transfusions. They did everything possible. In the end, "everything possible" just wasn't enough.
This weekend, the decision was made to euthanize Julius. It was a heartbreaking tragedy for the team. What perhaps made it more difficult than many struggles to save a fading animal is that it all played out almost live on social media. Aside from the keepers and vets, the heroes here are the folks who have to man Maryland Zoo's facebook page, patiently answering the same questions over and over again with good grace, acknowledging condolences, dealing with a few self-proclaimed experts, and dealing with the odd keyboard-warrior who feels the need to express an anti-zoo sentiment at the expense of a tragedy.
Birth and death are a cycle than all keepers become familiar with, in varying degrees. If you work with a large collection of small, short-lived animals (and I'm not even talking about invertebrate keepers here), birth and death may be a weekly or even daily occurrence. If you work with apes, elephants, or other large, long-lived species, you may go years without either. That just means that when it does hit you, it's that much harder.
An ongoing debate in recent years has been on how much to let the public in on these comings and goings. Traditionally, zoos have waited a few days to announce the birth of a new animal. An animal's first few days are fragile and precious, and so much can go wrong. Was it born healthy? Will its mother care for? If it's a mammal, will the mother produce milk? Will the baby suckle? What about accidents and illness in those vulnerable first few days? Better, in the minds of many zoo administrators, to quietly focus on the baby and see what will happen before going public.
I'm inclined to agree with the benefit of privacy. Birth is a stressful time for mother and young in many species, and there is no sense in letting folks from the outside badger the poor family when they're just trying to get to know one another in peace. At one zoo, a baby bear was born - and before the birth was announced (but after it had become common knowledge), we were constantly dealing with folks trying to sneak a peak behind-the-scenes.
The new trend - which I can understand - is full disclosure. Even if the baby doesn't make it, let everyone know about it, being as open and honest as possible. If the baby is healthy, let the public celebrate with you and join in your happiness. If it doesn't, let them mourn with you, let them see the sadness and realize how deeply keepers and other staff truly care about the animals. Look at Cincinnati Zoo's uncrowned princess - Fiona. I seriously doubted that that little hippo would make it - so premature, so little known about hand-rearing hippos (compared to, say, giraffes). And yet, they pulled it off, and Fiona's struggles, triumphs, and eventual reintroduction to her family played out in front of an adoring audience of millions.
Sometimes I get unfairly exasperated with mourners on social media. The endless comments about "the rainbow bridge" irritate me. If we really thought that there was some sort of paradise awaiting all of our animals, we might as well euthanize them all now and get them there faster... wait, I think that actually is PETA's mentality. And whenever an anti-zoo troll rises from the muck and says in a sanctimonious fashion, "Well, he/she is FREE now," I want to yell at my screen, "No, they are DEAD. Which is not anyone's desired outcome."
It's very sad what happened with the loss of Julius the giraffe calf. Still, Maryland Zoo keepers, as keepers everywhere, know that they have to pull themselves together and get back to work. There are other animals that are counting on them. Especially in this case. You see, Julius has a big sister, born just a few months before him. Her name is Willow, and she was the first giraffe born at the zoo is several years.
Which makes her birth - announced over social media - cause for extra celebration.