Exciting Times at the Okapi Barn!

Co-author Marcia with Zuri

Co-author Marcia with Zuri

The okapi barn at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park has been a bustling place of late. Our training program has been coming along beautifully; we can now perform a variety of husbandry procedures with the okapis without anesthesia. We can take temperatures, lift and examine feet, perform ultrasounds, and undertake many other procedures designed to help us care for these very special animals. We have even drawn blood from two okapis with their cooperation!

Zuri, our male calf, turned one on June 17. We have handled him a little differently from our past calves. Using a technique called imprinting, we have methodically accustomed him to human contact and various stimuli, beginning when he was just 24 hours old. His mom, Makini, an experienced female, has had no problem with any of these handling sessions. She stands calmly by while we work with her baby, often licking him (and us!) at intervals during the sessions. Best of all, Zuri is also halter trained. He can now be lead and happily follows us to pretty much anywhere we want him to go, even into confined spaces such as a trailer. We can also do full hoof trims with his cooperation, while someone holds his halter and reassures him. This is a novel and crucial breakthrough because okapis need occasional foot care, and animals that are not trained need to be completely anesthetized. Imagine if you had to be asleep to trim your toenails! We can now take care of okapi feet without putting them to sleep.

The most anticipated event, however, is the arrival of Biscotti, a seven-year-old male that has been living with our okapi group at the San Diego Zoo. He is coming to the Park as part of our ongoing breeding program. As well as being welcomed into the Wild Animal Park’s group, he is also being included in our bioacoustics study (see previous posts, Secret language of the Okapi and How the Okapi Spends Its Day).

As part of this study, a camera and a special microphone (which can “hear” the low-frequency calls) will be installed in his new stall in order to capture vocalizations between Biscotti and all the other okapis. This specialized equipment is capable of recording all sounds made by the okapis, including the calls which are so low in frequency that we cannot hear them without the help of a computer. Most exciting is the fact that we are now recording okapi behavior around the clock (for the very first time!) so that we can finally begin to unravel what these rare and endangered animals are doing (and saying) at any moment, night or day. This approach is going to provide very important insights into interactions between the new male and the rest of the herd and aid our understanding of okapi biology.

One final announcement: Ayana, a 6-year-old female, is expecting! Her calf is due mid-November of this year. For whatever reason, the last eight calves born at the Park have been males, so Think Pink for Ayana, because we need all the girls we can get!

Marcia Redding is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.
Matt Anderson is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

0 Responses to Exciting Times at the Okapi Barn!

  1. what is the male/female ratio in the okapi enclosure?

  2. yipee!!!!

  3. I just love the Okapis’ and feel that they are very underrated. Thanks for the last 2 blogs.

  4. Hi Marcia and Matt,

    It has to be a wonderful feeling to know that so many things that you need to do in caring for these gorgeous beings can now be done without all the stress and especially without all the worry that accompanies any anesthetic procedure no matter how complex or simple. Your patience and caring and love have made this possible!! Bless you in all that you do!! It must be wonderful to be able to touch that amazing coat–what does it really feel like? What a handsome lad in that photo!! You are envied by many and appreciated by all.


    Blessed Be All of Thee with LOVE, judy j

  5. Thanks for the comments, everybody! Including Biscotti, we now have two males and three females. Judy J, that velvety coat is very soft but also has a reddish brown oil that acts as a raincoat. Moisture rolls right off and doesn’t reach the skin. After handling the animals, we have reddish brown hands!

  6. It will certainly be interesting to see (hear) what goes on when Biscotti joins the herd.
    Do you think it’s possible to train the adult okpais to accept the hoof trimming without needing anesthesia? Would they learn from the youngster?

    Here’s hoping for a girl!

  7. njr_sd, thanks for your interest! It’s unlikely we will ever be able to do full hoof trims on our adults, but we have conditioned several of them to allow minor procedures, such as removal of small chips, or “hangnails” as we sometimes call them. This can help keep small problems from becoming bigger ones. It would be great if the others could learn from Zuri, but okapis, being relatively solitary animals, are not “programmed” to learn by example. More social animals such as primates are more likely to be able to learn this way. Okapis respond better to patient, step-by-step habituation.

    Biscotti has caused quite a bit of interest among the other okapis, most notably, he has inspired Zuri to display some dominant, territorial behaviors that we have not seen before. Our little guy is growing up! I am eager to see what Matt’s infrasound recordings tell us about the new dynamic at the barn. We will keep everyone updated as info becomes available!

  8. Your blogs are fascinating–please keep news of the Okapis coming.

  9. i am wrighting a report on them