Zookeepers, vets rally to save life of tiny Speke's gazelle

December 18, 2015 - 9:57am

Keepers rescue day-old calf from inattentive mom, and vet staff springs into action

A tiny gazelle that almost didn't make it past its first day of life is a month old today and well on the road to recovery at the Oregon Zoo.

Animal-care staff were thrilled Nov. 18 when Pansy, a 9-year-old Speke's gazelle in the zoo's Africa Savanna area, gave birth to her first calf. Speke's gazelles — the smallest of Africa's numerous gazelle species — are endangered, and each birth is considered an important step toward ensuring their long-term survival.

But excitement quickly turned to concern when keepers checked on Pansy the next morning. The newborn felt cold to the touch, and Pansy was observed head-butting it with her horns, unusually aggressive behavior.

Staff quickly intervened, transferring the calf to the intensive care unit of the zoo's veterinary medical center.

"The rest of the day involved some heroic efforts on the part of our vet staff," said zoo curator Amy Cutting. "It was touch and go for 36 hours or so while vet staff struggled to maintain her temperature and hydration."

Pansy required an exam under sedation to ensure she had properly passed the placenta, so vets were able to draw some blood from her, which was then spun down into plasma for transfusions to the calf. They also were able to extract some critical colostrum (first bit of mother's milk) from Pansy, to be tube-fed to the little one.

Once the calf had stabilized somewhat, staff began bottle feedings every two hours, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

By Dec. 11, the calf was healthy enough to move out of the vet center, joining her mom, Pansy, and the other gazelles in the zoo's Africa Savanna area. As keepers prepared her for the move, it was clear she was no longer a weak and wobbly newborn. Though still barely 5 pounds, she bounded playfully about the room, hinting at the speed and grace she'll possess as a full-grown gazelle.

"With gazelles, it's not uncommon for first-time moms to struggle," said Laura Weiner, senior keeper in the zoo's Africa section. "The calf has had some trouble figuring out how to nurse, but otherwise, she's doing well. We've begun reintroducing her to her mom. We want her to live a normal gazelle life, and not be too bonded to humans."

While the tiny antelope was still in intensive care, zoo veterinarians took to calling her Junior Mint. From there, Weiner said, it was just a graceful, gazelle-like leap to Juliet, the name on which keepers ultimately landed on for the calf.

"Traditionally, the females in her family have been named after flowers," added Weiner. "Her mom is Pansy and her aunt is Hyacinth, so Juliet is a bit of a departure. But we recently learned there's a variety of rose called Juliet — maybe that's close enough for the Rose City."

Juliet is still being bottle-fed five times a day, Weiner said, and is closely monitored by keepers. If all continues to go well, visitors should be able to see her in spring once the weather is a bit warmer.

The Speke's gazelle is named for 19th-century English explorer John Hanning Speke. Its historic range is the Horn of Africa on the Somali coast, inland to Ethiopia. The species has been hunted to extinction in Ethiopia and is endangered in Somalia due to war, hunting and overgrazing.