Innovation leads to Giraffe medical breakthrough at Melbourne Zoo

27 November 2019

Trying to come up with a way to get a five-metre tall Giraffe to volunteer for an X-ray certainly sounded like a tall order.

However, thanks to the innovative thinking of keepers and vets at Melbourne Zoo, a new technique has been developed to help monitor the pearly whites of one of the Zoo’s ageing citizens – Twiga the 23-year-old Giraffe.

The success is a combination of newly-designed X-ray equipment, months of dedicated training and the development of a special bond between keeper and Giraffe.

Melbourne Zoo Carnivores and Ungulates Keeper Georgie Greig said obtaining dental X-rays of the towering animal meant that keepers and vets were able to secure some very important information.

“We’re so excited that we are able to get these images,” Ms Greig said. “It provides us with an overall idea of Twiga’s dental health and insights that enable us to provide the best possible healthcare for her.”

Vision of the medical procedure makes for interesting viewing.

Twiga’s voluntary X-ray procedure is just one example of the whole-of-life care that staff provide for all animals at Melbourne Zoo. Whole-of-life care involves high quality physical and psychological healthcare, housing and management of social groupings.

Twiga approaches and voluntarily lowers her lofty head towards Ms Greig. The clever Giraffe then holds steady and in position beside an X-ray stand, enabling vets to take a side-on X-ray with their portable device. Twiga then receives a treat, and the process is repeated multiple times allowing vets to secure various images.

Ms Greig said the procedure was the result of months of hard work to develop new skills and trust with Twiga.

“With a tall animal like a Giraffe it can be difficult to find a way to take these X-rays,” Ms Greig said. “But Twiga was an absolute superstar. She had complete choice over the situation, meaning she could move away from the platform at any time and was in control of the entire procedure herself.” 

Melbourne Zoo Head of Veterinary Services Dr Michael Lynch said training Giraffes to voluntarily participate in X-rays had major benefits.

“Without training, Twiga would have needed to go under general anesthetic, which is a high-risk procedure for any animal, particularly an old Giraffe. So what the keepers have been able to achieve here is fabulous,” he said.

Dr Lynch said it was very important to monitor the dental health of all animals, including older Giraffes as their teeth tend to wear out in old age.

“It’s important for us to see if Giraffes have worn teeth, or if they have a dental disease like inflamed gums or impacted teeth. When teeth wear they can move, and food can get caught between them, often resulting in a process of inflammation,” he said.

“We’ve identified that Twiga has some worn teeth, so we’ll look to take further X-rays in the coming months to pro-actively monitor her dental health.”

Twiga’s voluntary X-ray procedure is just one example of the whole-of-life care that staff provide for all animals at Melbourne Zoo. Whole-of-life care involves high quality physical and psychological healthcare, housing and management of social groupings.

Zoo members and visitors can see Twiga and her fellow Giraffe, Nakuru, at Melbourne Zoo from 9am-5pm, seven days a week.