About Author: Jennifer Chapman

Posts by Jennifer Chapman


Okapi: Early Arrival

Our little okapi takes a peek at the big, wide world.

Our little okapi takes a peek at the big, wide world.

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.


My Moment With Our Black and White Celebrity!

It finally happened, I was able to help with a cub exam! I have been waiting for this moment since my first look at the cub during my night watch shift. As we began setting up for the exam, my excitement quickly turned to nervousness, and my mind raced. There were cameras, researchers, veterinarians, nutritionists, fellow keepers and supervisors, and it was up to me to keep our celebrity calm!  

Then it was time: Bai Yun shifted out to her breakfast, and she was calm. Now was my chance to pick up the cub, weigh him, and bring him out for his exam. I picked him up and placed him on his blanket, along with several bamboo leaves that I had to clean off of him so he would be camera ready. I gently placed him on the scale; he weighed 7.26 pounds (3.29 kilograms)! Now out to the cameras, the veterinarian, and the nutritionist for his exam. He did so well! He made a few vocalizations here and there, and he is getting much more mobile–he even crawled–but the veterinarian and nutritionist were able to conduct a thorough exam. Success!

Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Night Watch: Mission Accepted.


Night Watch: Mission Accepted

Can you start to see the cub’s panda colors?

Being a relief mammal keeper can be difficult. You need to be trained to work in multiple areas, remember all the safety protocols, and know how to identify individual animals, as well as build a relationship with those animals so that you work well with them and have the ability to notice when something is out of the ordinary. However, being a relief keeper also has benefits. You have the opportunity to work with a variety of animals in different areas of the San Diego Zoo, assist with training new behaviors or maintain existing ones, and be there to help wherever and whenever the department needs you. When I found out I was needed to help monitor our pregnant panda, Bai Yun, for signs of labor and later to monitor Mom and cub’s well-being, I accepted the mission. After all, it is my job! Once I found out that mission would take place overnight, from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., by myself for two weeks, my mind began racing. Would I be able to stay up all night? If something went wrong, how quickly could someone back me up? Would I be able to stay up all night? How well can I work all the camera equipment?

All of those anxious feelings quickly turned to excitement about what I was going to be a part of. How many people can say that their job required them to spend 80 hours monitoring a mother panda and her brand new cub?! What an amazing 80 hours it has been! Sure, much of the time was spent watching Bai Yun sleep in the den, but all of those hours were worth it when I was fortunate to be the only keeper on duty the first time Bai Yun left the den, giving me and anyone else watching Panda Cam the very first look at the new cub! I will never forget that moment: Monday, July 30, at 9:10 p.m.

I noticed Bai Yun re-positioning a lot, then all of a sudden she stood up and walked out of the den, leaving the cub flailing about and squawking. I was so excited but had to do my best to contain myself in order to do my job and gather as much information as possible. First, note the time; second, work the camera to get a good look at the cub; and finally, try to figure out where Bai Yun left, why, and what time she returned. Somehow I was able to accomplish all that while being in absolute amazement of what I was witnessing. I had been hearing the tiny cub off and on, but now I was able to see it and, more importantly, see that it was doing well. Of course, Bai Yun has been a mother five times before, but I wasn’t there for those cubs; this was my first time seeing her with a newborn, watching her enormous paws and mouth so carefully embrace this 4-ounce being, and it was unforgettable.

Since that unveiling of her cub, I have had several more opportunities to see it, as well as witness her gentle care, yet every time feels like the first. While it has been a great couple of weeks sitting in front of monitors, logging hours of observations, and being part of a new life, it is time to get back to my regular schedule of more physically demanding work wherever the department needs me. I get to work in the sun again with all the other amazing animals I have missed. Being a relief keeper is a tough job, but as they say, somebody has to do it. I’m happy that somebody is me!

Jennifer Chapman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.