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Giraffe-necked baby, Drax, settling in at Cameron Park Zoo

Giraffe-necked baby, Drax, settling in at Cameron Park Zoo

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Thanks to the weather, it might be some time before guests can see the newest newborn at Cameron Park Zoo.

Drax the Destroyer, a baby gerenuk named after a Marvel Comics character, was born at the zoo Oct. 21. Gerenuks are a kind of antelope with long, flexible necks and spindly legs native to dry parts of East Africa, including Ethiopia and Somalia.

Drax and his parents, Jewel and Dale, are among just 50 gerenuks at 10 zoos in the United States. Drax will not be able to go outside in temperatures lower than 60 degrees, said Manda Butler, animal care manager of mammals at Cameron Park Zoo.

“They have pretty strict temperature guidelines, so it’s been kind of a challenge to get him out on the day yard,” Butler said.

Drax is staying with Jewel, who is a first-time mom, in a separate enclosure while Jewel learns how to nurse and the zoo staff monitors and bottle-feeds Drax.

“This is why behavior training is so important in zoos,” Deputy Zoo Director Johnny Binder said. “It encourages natural behaviors and allows him to nurse, and it’s good for the mom as well.”

The enclosure shares a mesh wall with the rest of the exhibit, giving the giraffes, kudus and Drax’s dad, Dale, all part of the exhibit, a chance to get to know Drax.

“This day yard is really beneficial, because he’s already getting to visit his exhibit mates,” Butler said. “The giraffes especially are really curious. We want to make sure, with him being so small and the giraffe being so tall, that they get a good view of him and they’re expecting him out in the enclosure. They can get mesh-to-mesh, nose-to-nose.”

Butler said gerenuks look a little otherworldly, but they are built for speed and stealth.

“Baby gerenuks in general look like aliens, especially when they’re born,” Butler said. “They have huge ears and long legs.”

Full-grown gerenuks stand at about 4 feet tall, or 6 feet when standing on their hind legs to reach the leaves that make up their diet. Drax is just beginning to learn to stand and eat leaves alongside his mother, but his diet is still primarily milk.

“They’re kind of unusual in that gerenuks rarely drink water in their entire lives. It’s all from the vegetation,” Binder said.

Dwindling numbers

Binder said at an estimated 95,000 individuals, gerenuks are considered a near-threatened species.

“That’s scary. It means their numbers are declining like so many other things,” Binder said.

Butler said she became especially passionate about caring for gerenuks when the zoo first brought the species to its enclosures in the early 2000s. Today, Butler serves as vice-coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species survival plan for gerenuks in the United States.

“His birth is really significant not only to us and to the population, but to me personally,” Butler said.

Gerenuks are not just sensitive to cold. They also are prone to health issues including pneumonia and are susceptible to parasites. Like a lot of hoofstock, they can easily hurt themselves by running into things when startled.

“They really were considered, and still are considered, a pretty tough species to manage,” Butler said. “If you’re going to be involved in gerenuk, you’re going to need to be prepared for intensive management with them.”

Getting Drax and Jewel accustomed to the zoo staff now will ensure that they receive any needed veterinary care in the future, she said.

“If they’re comfortable with us and they trust us, we’re hopefully going to be able to pick up on little nuances of health issues early on,” Butler said. “When we first started this process, mom was less social than she is now, but because we’ve been so intensely managing … it’s been very positive for her.”

When Drax reaches adulthood, he could be moved to another zoo, depending on what the species survival plan calls for, she said.

“Hopefully, the foundation we give him will be enough that when he goes somewhere else, he’ll be a good breeder and a good dad,” Butler said.

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