SALT LAKE CITY — When you weigh nearly a ton — and stand more than 14 feet tall — having healthy feet is a big deal. And that's why a couple of troubled toes on a deformed foot have caught a lot of attention at Utah's Hogle Zoo.
"They're infected, they're breaking down a little bit," said veterinarian Dr. Nancy Carpenter during a treatment session in March.
The unhealthy foot belongs to Kipenze, otherwise known as Kip, a giraffe. Roughly a year ago, zoo veterinarians realized Kip's toes were in trouble.
"We want to try to nip that infection in the bud before it goes potentially up further (on) her leg," said another Hogle Zoo vet, Dr. Erika Crook.
At any zoo, keeping animals healthy is one of the biggest challenges. But Hogle Zoo's veterinary and zookeeping staff has had to use innovative treatments in an unprecedented effort — it's biggest ever — to help just one animal.
"This is a huge commitment of staff resources," said Carpenter, who is the zoo's director of animal health.
Kip broke one toe bone, or claw, many years ago; no one is sure exactly how that happened. But she apparently began shifting her weight to another claw and it led to damage in that one, too.
It's a bit like a flat tire on the right rear; it's a problem but Kip is able to keep driving on it and lead a relatively normal life.
"She definitely has a hitch in her giddyup," Crook said. "But it hasn't stopped her from interacting with the herd, going out on bright sunny days."
But the flat tire needs to be fixed. For one thing, the claws are growing too fast.
"We had been trimming the foot quite regularly for many, many years," Carpenter said. "So all of a sudden, for whatever reason, the hoof started growing quite quickly and we were having trouble keeping up with the trimming."
In March, vets installed an IV catheter high up in Kip's neck, about 10 feet above the ground.
"We wanted to give her antibiotics through a vein rather than orally," Carpenter explained. Later they implanted a second catheter and it fed antibiotics for a month. "Which is the first time that's ever been done in a giraffe, as far as we know," Carpenter said.
In March Hogle Zoo brought in an out-of-state expert on stem cells. Dr. Valerie Johnson, of Colorado State University, cultivated stem cells from another giraffe and injected them into Kip, hoping it would dampen inflammation, fight infection and repair tissues. She described it as an experimental treatment.
"I would say that we have certainly seen some pretty difficult cases that responded amazingly to these cells," Johnson said. "However, that is not always the case."
The zookeepers and veterinarians have continued doing other treatments every day or two for many months, applying germ-fighting medications directly to Kip's foot. They also are doing experimental treatments with a laser, bathing the foot regularly with rose-colored light.
After all that attention over many months, the deterioration of the foot seems to have stopped, but Kip certainly isn't cured.
"We have seen improvements," Carpenter said, "but more so, we have seen stabilization."
If Kip's health doesn't deteriorate, Carpenter believes the giraffe could live another 10 or 20 years.
"She's 15 now," Carpenter said. "We certainly hope that she'll live a good long life. And she is certainly, at this age, worth working on quite a bit longer."