The adorable baby elephant covered in sawdust and the wobbly giraffe calf with furled lips were among the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's most-anticipated newborns in years.

They were the zoo's first babies of their species in 10 and 20 years, respectively, and captured central Ohio's hearts with their birthday photos and live-streamed video feeds. The up-to-the instant updates are expected in a digital age, and officials say they offer transparency and help rally more supporters of animal conservation.

That doesn't change when unexpected things happen, including when newborn animals die.

As they review the last couple months, zoo officials say a top priority is providing the public with as much information as possible regarding the unexpected deaths of two 3-week old calves: Asian elephant Ellie and Masai giraffe Ubumwe, which contracted unrelated infections.

The deaths, about a month apart, were heightened by an additional loss: a never-before-seen birth defect that resulted in a second giraffe calf stillborn and deformed. That giraffe's 6-year-old mother, Cami, couldn't deliver it and died five days after a cesarean section surgery, a risky procedure that only three giraffes worldwide have ever survived.

Those who help organize breeding programs, involving a nationwide consortium of accredited zoos, say the deaths, though tragic, shouldn't prevent the zoo from breeding more animals in the future.

Zoo officials say they did all they could to prevent the unrelated deaths and will keep fielding questions to keep people informed.

"We used to never announce babies until they were 30 days old and now they're announced the same day," said Dr. Randy Junge, the Columbus Zoo's vice president of animal health and a veterinarian of 33 years who recently answered the public's questions on a Facebook Live video.

"You want to get the right information out there as quickly as you can," Junge continued. "I think people embrace that, and they appreciate it, because they feel like we're being honest with them."

 

Looking back

 

They've replayed the scenarios in their heads countless times.

But when they talked with the Dispatch earlier this month about the giraffes who died, Junge and veterinarian Priya Bapodra-Villaverde said, if given the chance, they wouldn't do anything differently to try to save the animals.

Cami's case in particular was a tough, lose-lose situation, they said.

The zoo called upon Dr. Andy Niehaus, a large animal surgeon and longtime zoo partner with Ohio State University's Veterinary Medical Center, to perform the C-section Dec. 4, a 2 hour, 30-minute process.

Any surgery is risky for giraffes, Bapodra-Villaverde said.

Their unusual anatomy and size (Cami was 1,850 pounds) makes them prone to injuries when anesthesia takes effect or leaves their system. Managing their pain throughout recovery is difficult because they're flighty wild animals that naturally conceal symptoms of health issues as a defense.

After trying to use his hands to move the stillborn calf into a position to be delivered naturally, Neihaus realized the risky procedure was his only option.

"It's like if you imagine a big game of Twister, with two back legs and one front leg and a head all on one dot," he said. "It won't come out that way."

In the case of Ubumwe, born to 8-year-old giraffe Zuri, a viral infection inflamed her intestines. When her 24-hour care team noticed behavioral changes, veterinarians immediately started treatment and confirmed with a CT scan that surgery wasn't necessary. Ohio State experts concurred. She died the next day, Nov. 17.

In general, giraffe calves have high mortality rates, about 50 percent in the wild and 25 percent in captivity.

"Whenever you end up with a dead animal, you always figure, 'Is there something that could've been done differently?'" Junge said. "But as we go over every step of what we've done, there is no glaring error."

The elephant that died Wednesday, born to 31-year-old Phoebe, likely had a bacterial infection that also inflamed her intestines, but showed no warning signs, zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters said. She died within hours.

Full necropsy (animal autopsy) results are pending for all the animals, though an initial necropsy indicated she suffered septic shock, Peters said.

Following the deaths, zoo officials notified U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency tasked with inspecting animal welfare in the country's zoos.

Their most-recent visit was a routine inspection in October, Peters said.

 

Looking ahead

 

Zoo officials say the heartache they experienced won't stop them from breeding animals again.

Its 14-giraffe herd has two experienced mothers, Bapodra-Villaverde said. Before this recent birth, Phoebe reared two baby elephants without issues.

If Columbus Zoo animals breed, it's only because it's recommended by a committee of representatives from every zoo that houses the species in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit group of more than 230 accredited institutions in the United States and abroad. Factors such as genetics and a zoo's exhibit space are considered.

Breeding must continue for giraffes and all zoo animals to maintain their genetic diversity, said Sheri Horiszny, coordinator of the association's giraffe Species Survival Plan. There are 127 Masai giraffes in association zoos, but 150 would better sustain the population of threatened animals, she said.

"It is extremely unfortunate for any zoo to lose two giraffes in a short period of time, whether they are calves or not," she said.

It's not out of line with population statistics, though, she said.

The elephant Species Survival Plan coordinator couldn't be reached Friday.

Some critics, such as Marc Bekoff, a former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, say the recent deaths at the Columbus Zoo illustrate why zoos should end breeding programs, which only exist to bring more animals into captivity.

He said zoos should shift focus solely to preserving natural habitats.

"I'm not belittling the zoo, because I'm sure they tried as hard as they could to have successful births," Bekoff said. "It's a tragedy all around. Unfortunately, it takes cases like this to awaken the public and really call these breeding programs into question."

But for every setback, Junge said there are countless other victories.

For example, Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity, lived 60 years at the Columbus Zoo and became the world's oldest known gorilla.

"We tend to dwell on the failures and think, 'What could we have done differently?'" Junge said. "But I like to think we have way more successes than we have failures, and I think that's true for zoos in general."