The Dallas Zoo has revealed that the baby giraffe who died suddenly on June 17 was being prepared for transfer to another zoo.
Witten, a 1-year-old giraffe, died during a physical exam under anesthesia when he suddenly stopped breathing.
Following his death, the zoo initially tweeted that "he was receiving a routine physical exam under anesthesia when he suddenly stopped breathing. An urgent attempt was made to resuscitate him, without success."
"Our expert veterinary staff and giraffe zoologists have performed these physical exams many times in the past without incident, but for humans and animals alike, there is always a risk associated with anesthesia and some animals react differently," the zoo said.
But the zoo has subsequently disclosed that the giraffe was being checked not as part of a routine exam but instead as preparation for transfer to another zoo.
"Based on an AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) Giraffe Species Survival Plan breeding recommendation, Witten was due to leave us this September for a new home at another AZA-accredited zoo in Canada," the zoo tweeted.
Witten also needed to be moved, the zoo said, because he would have eventually been driven out of the herd by his father, Tebogo. They've created a website dedicated to answering questions surrounding the giraffe's untimely death.
The zoo has a pattern of not announcing animal transfers in advance. In 2018, they quietly shipped two elephants they'd "rescued" from Swaziland to the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, California — despite assurances from Dallas Zoo President Gregg Hudson that their pod of elephants would remain together. Fresno Zoo deputy director Amos Morris stated that they wanted the elephants for breeding.
Government regulations require that animals be tested for viruses before crossing international borders. In the case of Witten, that would include tests for tuberculosis, brucellosis, malignant catarrhal fever, bluetongue, and West Nile.
Guidelines laid out by the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) state that "it is not recommended to immobilize giraffe on a routine basis for tuberculosis screening unless clinical signs support testing, a history of tuberculosis in the herd warrants screening, or impending shipment is to occur."
The AAZV advises against yearly immobilization, IE anesthetization, for physical examinations "until safe methods for routine sedation and handling are defined."
A transfer in September would explain the sense of urgency to carry out the tests immediately — before Witten could have been trained with positive reinforcement to tolerate an examination without the use of anesthesia, as suggested by Annamarie Alteri, who has worked as a keeper at a small zoo in Northern California and at exotic animal sanctuaries.
"You have a recommendation from within the industry not to perform routine or unnecessary knockdowns with this species," Alteri says. "There is also a recommendation from the AAZV against manual restraint — presumably the risks are injury and capture myopathy — which is what makes the training so important."
The zoo also tweeted that it would be conducting an internal investigation of the incident, including a necropsy, AKA an animal autopsy.
Witten was born in April 2018 to Chrystal, and was the second baby giraffe to die under the Dallas Zoo's care. In 2015, a giraffe named Kipenzi died after running into the wall of her enclosure, which the zoo called a "fluke."
Witten is not the only young zoo animal to die after being anesthetized. One of the 18 wild elephants taken from Swaziland in 2016 by the Dallas Zoo and two other zoos died in 2017 at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, following a similar sedation procedure.
"Anesthesia requires great care even with commonly anesthetized domestic species, and one would think it would be a last resort with exotic megafauna who are much trickier to anesthetize safely," Alteri says.