The morning of May 19 started off much different than most at the San Diego Zoo. During my morning check of the okapis, I immediately noticed that the very pregnant Safarani was in labor. The calf wasn’t expected for at least a couple more weeks, so my reaction was surprise, then excitement, since we were finally going to meet this endangered bundle of joy we have waited for so long. The average gestation of an okapi is 430 days, but we were only on day 410, so it was possible that the calf could be weaker than calves born closer to the average gestation. With that in mind, it still did not diminish our excitement in welcoming such an amazing addition to the world.
Safarani has been a mother three times previously, so she knew exactly what to do, but I had never witnessed an okapi birth, and I think it showed! Safarani, on numerous occasions, would approach the window in the maternity stall, where I was conducting several checks on her while continuing to care for the other animals in that area, and place her right ear through the bars so I could scratch it. It seemed the only thing I could do to give her reassurance, but perhaps I was the one who needed it! Finally, with one last push by Safarani at 8:23 a.m., the calf was born.
Safarani continued to amaze me as she tended to her newborn, but after some time we realized that the calf was too weak to stand. Fortunately, help wasn’t too far away. With the assistance of veterinary staff, we were able to give her a little boost with some fluids and oral medicine that gave her the strength she needed to stand and start nursing, which was quite a relief for us all! During that neonatal exam, we weighed her and found that she was only 43.6 pounds (19.8 kilograms), whereas the average okapi calf size is closer to 55 pounds (25 kilograms), but once she was able to start nursing, she quickly gained and as of June 8 weighed 88 pounds (40 kilograms)!
The first few days of this early arrival were a test of patience and endurance by all involved: calf, Mom, and Zoo staff. She was on 24-hour watch where a few of us took turns conducting overnight observations plus working our normal day shifts. But I know that we all felt privileged to have the opportunity to observe this endangered calf get stronger with every drink of nutritious mother’s milk and with every step working those leg muscles. A little more than two weeks after birth, she walked out into the exhibit with Mom, and what a great feeling that was!
Mom and calf are on exhibit only a few hours each day, usually in the morning, to allow the calf time to get used to her much larger surroundings. The calf is now at the stage in her life where she only needs to nurse two to three times a day, so there is no need to always be right next to Mom. In the wild, okapi mothers hide their calves, then leave to forage in the dense Ituri forest, so it’s not uncommon to see the calf spending time toward the back of the exhibit while Mom is up front foraging on the browse and alfalfa that we have put out for her.
Come by the exhibit along the Hippo Trail first thing in the morning and see how this early arrival is progressing!
Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: Mom Knows Best.