Surgery could fix giraffe’s terminal birth defect

OKLAHOMA CITY — A 6-month-old giraffe born with a terminal defect that prevents her from digesting most foods is scheduled to undergo groundbreaking surgery that an Oklahoma City Zoo veterinarian said has never before been performed on her species.

Kyah has an extra blood vessel wrapped around her esophagus — a symptom of a congenital heart defect — that prevents her from holding down much of what she eats, according to the zoo’s associate veterinarian, Dr. Gretchen Cole. With the surgery, slated for Tuesday, Kyah has a 50 percent chance of survival, but without it she has none, Cole said.

Kyah, whom zookeepers describe as feisty and mischievous, would not appear sick to most people. At 6-months-old she has grown to nearly 8 feet tall and weighs 525 lbs. She plays with the other giraffes in her enclosure and picks the occasional fight with the geese that sometimes settle there.

The only noticeable difference is that Kyah occasionally shakes her head and neck in an unusual way.

“If you looked at her now you’d think ‘healthy giraffe, just relaxing,’ because everything else about her is good,” zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson said.

Keepers first noticed a problem when Kyah began regurgitating her mother’s milk after nursing when she was 6-weeks-old. The problem got worse as she transitioned to solid food.

“We did an exam a few weeks ago and localized the problem to what we think is a persistent right aortic arch, (which) is a congenital heart defect,” Cole said. “Basically she has an extra vessel that is constricted around her esophagus.”

A team of veterinarians, including Cole, will try to remove the problematic blood vessel in the surgery at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences. The university has a CAT scan machine and the knowledgeable staff essential for the operation’s success, Cole said.

Cole believes Kyah will be the first giraffe to undergo the procedure, although it is common in dogs. If the surgery is a success, Kyah could be back on her feet within two weeks.

“If she can stand up, she can walk around, she can nurse and begin to eat normal food,” Cole said. “We’ll take it day by day.”

The logistics of the surgery and Kyah’s transportation to OSU are all factors that will affect whether or not she survives.

“Instead of bed rest, she’ll be on barn rest with her mom,” Henson said. “That’s our hope.”

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