Santa Barbara’s new giraffe baby has valuable DNA

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Asha and her mother, Betty Lou. Credit: Santa Barbara Zoo (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A little before midnight last Friday, before going to bed, Santa Barbara Zookeeper Cassie Taylor decided to check on the giraffes via a camera monitoring system set up in their barn. She saw hooves.

“We were in there within 20 minutes of [Betty Lou] going into labor,” said Wendy Anderson, Senior Mammal Keeper at the Santa Barbara Zoo. At 1:55 a.m. on Saturday, Asha (her name means “Life” in Swahili) was born.

She’s now 6’4″, 182 pounds and growing. She’s no average baby, not even for a Masai Giraffe. Anderson says it has a lot to do with Asha’s father, Michael. He is considered very genetically valuable, as he is not related to any U.S. female giraffes other than Asha and his previous daughter, Sunshine.

“His offspring are very important and valuable also. So they will be sent to continue his work and populate other zoos,” said Anderson.

Asha, along with her 4-month-old half brother, are part of a cooperative breeding program run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This means that in a year or two, they’ll be transported to a different zoo in order to keep reproducing Masai Giraffes that are as genetically valuable as they are.

From left: Mother Betty Lou, newborn Asha and her half-brother, Buttercup. Credit: Kathryn Barnes (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“They could be transported all over the country, potentially. But we’ve got a consortium of zoos in the western region, so they can avoid traveling so far when it’s possible,” said Sheri Horiszny, the Director of Animal Program. The past two baby giraffes born at the zoo were sent to zoos in Phoenix, AZ and Waco, TX.

The zookeepers were very happy Asha was a girl.

“In about 2011, we had 19 males and 4 females born in that year, so it skewed the young Masai population male. We need all the girls we can get,” said Horiszny.

There are only over 100 Masai giraffes in zoos in North America, and an estimated 37,000 in Kenya and Tanzania. They are at risk there due to poaching, habitat loss and degradation. Giraffes are the tallest land mammal, and the Masai is the largest subspecies, growing up to 17 feet tall and weighing 2,700 pounds.