September 3, 2008
Letting go of Tulsa Zoo giraffe Georgina won't be easy
by: MATT GLEASON World Scene Writer
8/31/2008 12:00 AM
Georgina the giraffe didn't much like the rain, not even a trickle from a rogue cloud. Even big girls — and we're talking 15-footers — don't like it when the sky cries.
"Let me in," Georgina would practically tell her longtime keeper Eric Flossic, as she waited to enter her barn at the Tulsa Zoo.
Ordinarily, Georgina was a "princess," Flossic said, who wouldn't enter her towering palace through its narrow holding chute. Rather, Georgina preferred the wide-open south door.
If the lightest trickle fell on Georgina's crown of horns, well, you should have seen that princess hoof it through the chute.
Georgina's man, Samburu, or "Sam," as everybody calls him, doesn't mind the rain, or the chute, for that matter. He just wanted to be near his girl.
"He was just really sweet on her," Flossic said.
Although Georgina was the older woman by six years, she was 3 feet shorter than Sam, so most zoo patrons figured Sam was her daddy. When Flossic explained their relationship to guests, ladies always liked that Georgina (who would have been 22 in October) found a younger man.
And they were good together, Sam and Georgina, for most of Sam's 16 years. For instance, if Georgina needed to scratch a hard-to-reach place on her long, spotted back, she'd use Sam's tail as a makeshift scratching post.
"Of course, Sam didn't mind," Flossic said. "Sometimes he would back up towards her, just so she could itch on him."
In the late '90s, the couple had two baby girls, who came into this world about 6 feet tall. The children had to go to other zoos, though. Earlier this decade, Georgina and Sam were separated during a two-year breeding restriction. It ensured the couple didn't over-represent the population, Flossic explained. Still, the two lovers were often seen nuzzling over the high fence.
Eventually, it came time for the couple to try for another child, beginning in February 2007. Flossic isn't sure when Georgina became pregnant, but last September she weighed a normal 1,700 or so pounds. But by August this year, she weighed in at roughly 2,100 pounds. "A good sign" for a pregnant mama, Flossic said.
Giraffe pregnancies last 15 months, so Georgina still had a few months left to carry her baby. In preparation for the impending birth, Flossic and company child-proofed the giraffes' yard with narrow stock panels just for the baby. And to make sure the child had a soft landing when it entered this world, the keepers had 20 or 30 bags of wood shavings ready to coat the barn's cold, rough floor.
"We were waiting to be proud parents," Flossic recalled.
But the baby came early. Too early.
In mid-August, Flossic watched from the barn's catwalk as Georgina birthed her premature baby. Then he saw Georgina crane her serpentine neck low over the child and realize it wasn't breathing — and never would.
In the days that followed, zookeeper Trent Veppert noticed that Georgina held her head lower than usual. "It seemed like she grieved a little," Veppert said.
Giraffes, like most wild animals, don't show weakness for fear of predators, so Georgina tried to act normal. But Flossic knew she wasn't herself. Something was wrong, but he tried to stay optimistic.
Then, less than two weeks after Georgina's baby died, Flossic's telephone rang on his day off. When he answered the call Saturday afternoon, Karen Dunn, the large mammal curator, told him: "I'm really sorry. I just want to let you know we lost Georgina today."
Complications from childbirth. A half-hour later, Flossic was at Georgina's side.
"I had my hand on her," he recalled of that quiet moment in the barn, "and basically told her that I loved her and I would miss her. I was sorry for everything that happened."
Flossic worked with Georgina for seven years, but he had to snap out of it. There was still work to do.
"Since it's a job," he explained, "you try as much as you can to be as professional as possible."
Debra Bastin, however, a keeper who cared for Georgina for several months, couldn't fend off her emotions.
"I, unfortunately, wasn't as professional," she said. "I was very physically upset. I still can't believe it."
Once Flossic left the zoo that night, his cheeks were still dry. It wasn't until he pulled into his garage and let the door shut behind him that he allowed himself to let go.
"It wouldn't make it any easier on anybody else to be an emotional basket case," he recalled. "I don't know how I did it. It was almost like when the door closed, it was like closure. I could be myself and let it out."
Then he made his way into the house, where his wife, Seana, a penguin keeper at the zoo, waited with his favorite dinner. Eric had Seana that day, but Sam didn't have Georgina.
"Even today, he's still looking for her," Flossic said, as Sam looked on from high above. "There's still times he's checking around corners, just kind of glancing to see where she's at."
Georgina's body is dust now, but at least in Flossic's mind, she'll forever be the princess who hated the rain.
Copyright © 2008, World Publishing Co. All rights reserved