The lone giraffe at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo died last week from a growth in its stomach that caused a fatal blockage from the stomach to the small intestine.
Rocket, who died Aug. 13 at the age of 4, did not show any symptoms until the day before he died, said the zoo's executive director, Rick Hahn.
"He was doing great," said Hahn. "It was a very normal day — the day before."
Last Monday, the zoo staff noticed that Rocket was not eating normally.The next morning, he was found dead in his sleeping quarters.
Veterinarians found the growth after performing a gross necropsy, and told Hahn that the condition was not related to anything preventable.
"We did our due diligence because we were concerned that we did something or could have done something," said Hahn.
Rocket was no stranger to medical problems, according to Hahn. Born at a private zoo in New Jersey, he had no hair, which is abnormal for giraffes. He was unable to nurse, so his caretaker had to feed him by bottle.
Rocket was also born with a turned leg that caused a hitch in his walk. He had undergone a medical hoof trimming procedure just a few weeks before his death to make walking easier.
When he was 2 years old, a fire at his first home brought Rocket to Catoctin. He was going to be a temporary resident in Thurmont, as the zoo did not have the proper heaters to host him through the winter, but the staff held fundraisers so they could buy the necessary equipment to keep him.
When the veterinarians examined Rocket's body last week, one of them told Hahn that two other giraffes from Rocket's New Jersey herd had suffered congenital heart disease.
"Most times a zoo has problems like this, they will change out the bloodline," said Hahn, but he suspected that the zoo was unaware of the problem.
That zoo, Animal Kingdom in Bordentown, N.J., has experienced a many misfortunes over the years. The fire that brought Rocket to Catoctin was the second one that year for the owner. It killed 24 animals, including a mother giraffe and her calf.
The USDA has inspected Animal Kingdom 20 times and recorded violations in 18 of those inspections sinceOctober 2011, according to USDA's online records. The zoo is now closed and for sale.
A new giraffe
The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo stated in its original release that it would seek a new giraffe. Hahn reiterated Tuesday that the zoo would host giraffes in the future because of a "wonderful experience with Rocket." He also said that the encounters with Rocket brought in a good amount of money for the zoo.
Representatives from the Humane Society of the United States, however, believe that the Catoctin Zoo should not get a giraffe to replace Rocket.
"Catoctin apparently does not have the resources to provide proper care for the animals in its facilities, and bringing in more animals could make a bad situation worse," stated Nicole Paquette, the society's vice president of wildlife protection, in a letter to The Frederick News-Post.
The zoo had no non-compliances recorded during its most recent inspection on May 21, according to the USDA's animal care inspection records. However, Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist for the Humane Society, said that the requirements used in these inspections are in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act, which is insufficient by the society's standards.
"The Animal Welfare Act is weak and very poorly enforced," said Wathne, who called the space and enrichment standards under the act inadequate.
Instead, the society refers to the requirements for accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as an acceptable standard for zoos. The society distinguishes this association from the similarly named Zoological Association of America, which Wathne said has weak requirements. The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo is accredited by the Zoological Association of America, but not the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Wathne and Paquette said the zoo's living conditions should not be considered adequate for a new giraffe. Wathne visited the Catoctin Zoo in May and said that she was upset with Rocket's living conditions then.
"It was a very hot day when I was there, and this guy (Rocket) had no protection from the sun," she said.
They also referenced the fact that Rocket was the lone giraffe at Catoctin, which they found troubling since giraffes are herding animals.
"Considering the set-up for Rocket, especially his solitary status, is just not conducive to the Catoctin zoo acquiring more giraffes," said Wathne.
Hahn said that once Catoctin had acquired Rocket, they planned to eventually bring in a female giraffe to accompany him. He also said that male giraffes do not typically stay with the herd, and in zoos are often separated from females and calves to prevent an overabundance of giraffe births.
He also said that while Rocket did not have shaded shelters in his outdoor enclosure, "they don't get shaded in Africa either."
When looking to acquire a new giraffe, Hahn said he will look carefully into the medical history of its family to avoid another early death.