Zoo giraffe dies in front of crowd

Scott Hilyard

One of the two young male giraffes in the Peoria Zoo’s Africa exhibit died in its outdoor enclosure in a strange accident Tuesday afternoon in front of a large crowd of summer visitors, including lots of children.

He was 3. The exhibit has been open to the public a little more than one year.

“We’re devastated,” said Bonnie Noble, executive director of the Peoria Park District, which oversees zoo operations. “That a lot of people were around to witness makes it even more devastating.”

The giraffe was eating leaves from a tree on the other side of an internal 4-foot fence in the enclosure about 1 p.m. when its head and neck got caught in the fork of the tree. The animal struggled some but couldn’t dislodge its head. Somehow  the movements of the 15-foot-tall giraffe flipped its body onto the opposite side of the fence with its head still stuck in the tree, according to zoo director Yvonne Strode.

A visitor alerted a nearby concessionaire with concern about the stuck giraffe. The concessionaire alerted zoo staff members, who converged on the enclosure. The zoo veterinarian was coincidentally on his way to the zoo for his regular rounds, and was on the scene of the accident quickly.

“We were able to extract his head and he was still alive at that point and down on the ground,” Strode said. “He really didn’t react that much and wasn’t thrashing or anything.”

The giraffe, known to its keepers as Savannah, stopped breathing about five to 10 minutes later.

“It was just a terrible accident. We don’t know yet how he died, but it seems less like a broken neck and more like a heart attack maybe,” Noble said. “They can be skittish animals.”

A necropsy — a procedure to determine the cause of an animal’s death — will be performed.

Visitors were ushered out of the Africa exhibit and it was closed for the day. Strode said witnesses showed concern about the giraffe, but because the scene was more unusual than panicky or chaotic, there were no screaming or crying children.

Strode said Africa will be open Wednesday morning, but not all of the animals will be exhibited. The gerenuks and gazelles, which shared the enclosure with the two giraffes, will be indoors because part of the fence was removed in the process to save Savannah. The other giraffe, known as Taji, will be in its outdoor paddock away from public view.

The two giraffes came to Peoria in November 2008 from the Indianapolis Zoo. The overseer of the captive giraffe population in the United States was told about Tuesday’s accidental death, beginning the process to replace the dead giraffe at the Peoria Zoo.

Scott Hilyard can be reached at