Wild life: Clemson alumna helps welcome newborn giraffe
Christy Belcher wrapped her arms around the newborn giraffe much like she did a foal during her field training at Clemson University.
She had arrived at the Greenville Zoo early Feb. 2 after receiving a 5 a.m. phone call from zoo administrator Jeff Bullock. Initially, she ignored the call, thinking she was hitting snooze on her alarm. The phone rang again. She sprang awake, now realizing what was happening. The zoo’s female giraffe, Autumn, was giving birth to her third calf, a boy named Tatu.
Adrenaline racing, Belcher struggled to remain within the speed limit as she hurried through the dark and fog from her home in Greer to the downtown Greenville Zoo. When she arrived, Autumn was standing in her stall, in the early stages of labor.
This was Autumn’s third delivery. Her first, Kiko, now lives at the Toronto Zoo. Her second did not survive.
Tatu was born at 6:16 a.m. Feb 2. Giraffes give birth upright. The baby’s fall from mom to the floor stimulates its first breath.
“Those few moments of watching for the baby to take its first breath seemed like an eternity to me,” Belcher said. “Once I saw it breathing I felt much better about it.”
Tatu was standing within an hour. Belcher and other zoo staff members watched.
A 2003 graduate of Clemson’s Animal and Veterinary Sciences program, Belcher has been a veterinarian at the Greenville Zoo since 2009. An Easley native, she was always fond of animals. As a child, she would sneak turtles and snakes into her home against her mother’s wishes.
“I got in trouble once because a box turtle closed its shell on my finger. I had to wake up my parents because I needed help, so they found out,” Belcher said.
At Clemson, Belcher’s studies offered direct training with horses, cows, sheep and goats. Hoisting a newborn giraffe by wrapping arms around its chest and rump is similar to the way vets handle newborn calves or foals for exams, Belcher said. Greater care is given to support the giraffe’s long neck.
That training with livestock on Clemson research farms would serve her well as she transitioned to a career working with the 350 exotic animals at the Greenville Zoo.
“The giraffes receive the same vaccines that we use in horses and cows,” she said. “The vaccine that my cat at home gets is the same rabies vaccine that our leopards and lions get.”
The leopards and lions are sedated first with a tranquilizer dart. Belcher watches the clock when performing exams on the massive predators. Sedation lasts 45 minutes.
Belcher monitors the health of a tarantula that recently birthed 250 babies of its own at the Greenville Zoo. She may need to give the large hairy spider a blood test. She gives fecal exams to frogs, lizards and amphibians to test for parasites. She performs surgeries on the massive cats. She helps nurse a rescued python back to health. She arranges flu shots for orangutans.
A pregnant orangutan once spit at her. Autumn, a protective mother, now stares her down when Belcher enters the room. An ocelot crouches in the hunting position within its enclosure as Belcher enters the zoo’s clinic. After a few moments, the ocelot calmly walks to its litter box, comfortable with Belcher’s presence.
A friendly eclectus parrot named Ollie climbs atop Belcher’s shoulder. An elderly red panda raises its paw as if to say hello as Belcher enters the room. The animals have become like family, Belcher said.
“Everyone asks me, ‘How do you know how to work on a giraffe?’ It really did start with my training and education at Clemson, just being out on the farms with the horses, with the cows, with the goats and the sheep,” Belcher said. “I like to tell people to always embrace the education and what the students are getting at Clemson because you never know what that’s going to prepare you for.”
Clemson’s Animal and Veterinary Sciences department has concentrations in animal agribusiness, equine business and pre-veterinary and science. The program has approximately 428 undergraduate students enrolled.
After Clemson, Belcher studied in the Carribean and at North Carolina State University and Texas A&M University. Through her studies, she has spent time at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Tambopata Research Center in the southeastern rainforest of Peru, the San Antonio Zoo, the Houston Zoo, the North Carolina Zoological Park, the Miami MetroZoo and other veterinary clinics, research centers and educational facilities. She has been published in the the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine and the Journal of Avian Pathology.
At the Greenville Zoo, Belcher helped design the first Winter Zoo Vet Camp and collaborated with Clemson University’s Animal and Veterinary Science department in March 2015 to design the first pre-veterinary science summer internship eligible for college course credit. Another Clemson student will study under the zoo’s veterinary staff this summer.
“Our biggest mission, as with any zoo, is conservation and education,” Belcher said.
On Feb. 1, Belcher gave Autumn her normal veterinary exam.
“We went out onto exhibit. Autumn was doing great. She looked wonderful, and I thought we have about two weeks until I think she’s going to give birth,” she said.
Bullock, the Greenville Zoo director, called the next morning. He recently decided to exercise each day before coming to the office. He awakes each morning at 4 a.m. and turns on EarthCam, a live webcam that gives thousands of online viewers around the world a glimpse into the lives of Autumn, her mate Walter, and now Tatu.
At most zoos, staff arrive to work to find a baby in the stall. That has happened at the Greenville Zoo this past year with the birth of a siamang gibbon monkey, two ocelots and a red panda.
“Sometimes, you may not even know the mother is pregnant because the baby just weighs a few grams,” Belcher said.
Autumn was not that mother. Tatu was born 6-feet-one-inch tall and nearly 158 pounds, much bigger than his brother Kiko, who weighed 118 pounds at birth and stood 5 feet, 11 inches.
Bullock remembers getting a call from a woman in Kansas the day of Kiko’s birth.
“She was asking, ‘are these early signs of labor?’,” Bullock recalled.
Had she not called, zoo staff may not have been present to witness Kiko’s birth. Similary, Belcher and other zoo staff members and veterinarians may not have been on hand for Tatu’s birth had Bullock not decided to wake up early to exercise.
“A lot of animals are born during the night and you seldom know when they’re going to go into labor. Without the webcam we wouldn’t have known,” Bullock said.
At 4 a.m. Feb. 2, he checked the EarthCam as he does each morning before his workout.
“Autumn was definitely acting differently,” Bullock said.
Then, he saw the “white bubble,” a giraffe’s version of the water, which protects the baby in the womb, breaking. He called Belcher, the zoo’s new deputy administrator and veterinarian Nick Kapustin, and a few other members of the zoo staff.
“I really wanted them to have the opportunity to witness this,” Bullock said.
Autumn delivered without need for medical intervention.
Belcher spent the next several minutes taking note of the behaviors of both mom and baby. Autumn and Tatu were then left alone, while the father, Walter, remained separated to allow the two to gain strength and recover. Belcher monitored Autumn and Tatu from a computer via EarthCam.
The next day, Tatu received his first head-to-toe neonatal exam, Belcher said. Blood samples were taken to ensure Tatu was receiving adequate immunity’s from Autumn’s milk, and to test the health of his organs. He was weighed and measured.
Tatu is healthy, the world’s 29th Masai giraffe born over the past 12 months. He grew one foot in the first week.
“We’re very excited. We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights but it’s well worth it,” Belcher said.
Like Kiko, Tatu will transfer to another zoo, likely within a year, in a move that promotes genetic diversity among captive animals.
“We’re taking videos of Tatu and sending them to the Toronto Zoo, and they are sending us videos of Kiko, so he gets to see his brother,” Belcher said.