Born in 1985, Rothschild’s giraffe Ursula, 32, died at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden on Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 5 p.m. Ursula spent 31 years at the OKC Zoo and was the oldest giraffe in a United States zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The median life expectancy for female giraffes is 19.5 years. During the last years of her life, Ursula was afflicted with chronic arthritis, particularly in her lower limb joints, making everyday activities such as walking and standing increasingly difficult and painful.
Veterinarians prescribed a medication that slowed the progress of the disease and applied other treatments, including cold laser therapy to reduce inflammation and encourage the growth of healthy cells, in an effort to improve Ursula’s quality of life. After it became apparent that these palliative treatments were becoming less effective and her level of pain was increasing, the difficult decision was made by veterinary and caretaker teams to humanely euthanize Ursula.
Caretakers remember Ursula as inquisitive and watchful, even into her geriatric years, and while initially skeptical of new people, extremely trusting after her approval had been earned. Her favorite hobby was finding sticks in her habitat (Ursula was rarely seen without a stick in her mouth) and she loved eating daylilies, a special treat as part of her enrichment activities. In her three decades at the OKC Zoo, Ursula inspired and educated millions of guests, left an indelible mark on her caretakers and contributed greatly to continuation of her species. During her life, Ursula produced eight offspring, including Bogy, a Zoo fan-favorite, who passed in 2015.
The Zoo participates in the AZA’s Giraffe Species Survival Plan, a cooperative, long-term management program designed to maintain genetically viable and geographically stable populations of specific species. Until recently, scientists believed in a single species of giraffe with several subspecies. A genetic analysis completed in 2016, however, indicates four separate species of giraffe. The scientific and conservation communities are determining how this information will affect conservation activities. Of the previously identified subspecies, the Rothschild’s giraffe is vulnerable with fewer than 1,700 individuals remaining in the wild in isolated parts of Kenya and Uganda. Giraffe populations have declined rapidly in the wild due to poaching and habitat destruction.
The Zoo has been contributing to giraffe conservation since 2009 by supporting Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya. This organization establishes community conservancies, helping local people to manage grazing land to reduce competition between livestock and wildlife. This increases the habitat available for giraffes. In 2018, the Zoo will send two employees to Kenya to help with a census of Grevy’s zebras and reticulated giraffes. This information is very important for guiding conservation management plans for these populations. Other herd members at the OKC Zoo include Noel, 28, Ellie, 17, Julu, 2 and Ketara, 1.