Don't Retract Pack

Giraffe, Noel, Dies After Birth at Houston Zoo

Noel and her firstborn calf, Neema, 2007

Birth is big business in the United States today. And while we typically focus on the birthing experience of the human mammal, there are many things we can learn from normal birth of other mammals in the wild. I am especially enamored with elephant birth, and a few colleagues have a heart for giraffe mommas and their birth routines. The wise words Dr. Grantly Dick-Read so eloquently stated decades ago in Birth Without Fear, still hold true today: mammal birth plays out best when it is left alone -- when mother feels safe and secure and is not 'messed with' or monitored by strangers around her.

Unfortunately, death is also a part of life. We can never be fully certain of how things will end up - including our birthing days or those that belong to the animal mothers around us. This little calf may have already had problems inutero before sliding earthside, and Noel's fate may have been the same whether in the zoo (with vets and keepers all around her and drugs pumping through her veins) or in her natural birthing habitat in the wild. However, one thing seems to echo through repeated experiences (among mammals of all kinds - human included): sedatives and labor do not mix well.

In addition, as other birth advocates have pointed out, it may be true that 'caging' mammals - in zoos or in our modern day human lifestyle - has led to a reduction in the natural, normal movement necessary for healthy, uneventful birth. When an elephant, or giraffe (for example), cannot roam and run for miles and miles a day, there are physiological changes that may significantly impact birth form and function. When the human mammal no longer walks and runs and climbs and stretches and squats on a day to day basis, it is possible that our birthing days, too, are impacted.

Just something to think about...

Local ABC Houston (Channel 13) News Report on Noel's Birth and Death:

Houston Zoo employees are mourning the loss of a member of their extended animal family, after a giraffe died while giving birth.

Zoo officials reported the death of Noel, a 15-year-old Masai giraffe and her calf during the delivery of her calf Monday morning. A necropsy, an animal autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death of Noel and her calf. Results of the necropsy may not be known for several weeks.

Noel began showing signs of labor at approximately 7am.

"Noel had been showing steady progress with the calf's head and one foot extending from the birth canal," said Houston Zoo Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Joe Flanagan. "But when we did not see the other foot emerge, we administered a mild sedative to calm Noel so that veterinarians and keepers could get closer and assist in the birth."

The calf emerged from the birth canal at approximately 9:30am with the assistance of the Houston Zoo's veterinary care team and keepers but was pronounced dead within a few minutes.

Despite the determined efforts of the care team and keepers, Noel passed away at approximately 11:30am.

"We are all grieving and devastated by the loss of Noel and her calf," said Flanagan. "The Houston Zoo has never before lost a giraffe mother and calf during labor."

Noel is survived by two calves, Neema, born in August 2007 and Miles, born in January 2009.


  1. I remember talking to my neighbor whose dog's puppies ended up being delivered by cesarean, and the dog rejected them. Apparently this is very common with animals delivered by cesarean, yet a huge proportion of human babies are delivered this way - I wonder what effect it will have on human babies?

  2. dogs such as Bulldogs, Boston terriers have to be delivered by C-section. Their faces have been bred to be too wide to fit through the birth canal. They've found mothers at puppy mills given repeated c-sections (without sedatives) and pretty much thrown back together, sewn up with a needle and thread in somebody's bathroom, and bred again.

  3. My Grandfather and I used to try to wait quietly in the barn while a mare was in foal...(just in case) ...sitting around sometimes over 24 hours while nothing at all seemed to happen... then we would go the house to use the bathroom or get a fresh pot of coffee (ten minutes tops!) we would always come back to a happy Mother and baby. She just waited to be alone.

  4. Bronwyn - That is SO sad. :(

    I am sad at the loss of momma and baby. I have to say either way about the other. Any loss at time of a birth is very heartbreaking ♥

  5. it's a serious matter in livestock when there isn't a two hoof presentation. It's an impossible delivery actually. You should see two hooves, one slightly ahead of the other, and a nose in between. Anything else needs intervention, period.

    It would be nice to turn our beloved livestock out in a pasture and let them birth unassisted, but the reality is, they don't always have ideal presentations either.

    Ask me how I know. I lost a beloved mare, my heart horse, to an unassisted foaling in a pasture. Both she and her foal died, and if I could have been there to help, I would turn back time in a heartbeat. 15 years and I still think about her.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss, Misty. Here it is 2017 and I'm sure you are still mourning the loss of your mare and her calf. Heartbreaking! God bless!

  6. This is local to me. Very sad. :(

  7. misti, i know what you mean. i have nightmares about the foals and mare who died giving birth on our farm. one was unassisted and both died, the other was assisted and the twin foals died but we at least saved the mare... and we had one pasture birth that went beautifully, right as rain. but those gangly-legged animals have to present just right or they get all tangled up, they don't come out in a nice little compact shape like a puppy or kitten, or even a nuechal limb human. it is heart wrenching decision to intervene, and even worse to wonder what would have happened if, if , if... after that we cut our stud and quit breeding livestock, much too stressful.

  8. Very sad for your loss but please don't let it be the only thought remember every circumstance needs to be weighed. Often fear of the worst can bring upon assistance undolly(sp). That is not to say that assistance is always used in zoo settings. Most of these mating programs in captivity are becoming less hands on. I wish they were that way with us humans. We wouldn't have so many c-sections!

  9. tell me about it, Luna. My mare wasn't even bred with my permission. I was out of state at college, and the "rancher" who was caring for her thought he could sneak a foal out of her without me knowing it...and then he waited weeks to tell me she was dead. I've never bred a mare, but I've foaled a few...and there's nothing more nerve wracking in my experience.

  10. misti what a horrific story. is nothing sacred anymore??

    i cannot even begin to imagine how violated you must have felt, at so many levels. he sounds like a sadistic sicko, sorry. the kind that could accidentally run over an animal, and keep driving. too bad his greed blinded him. sorry for your loss, misti.

  11. Sad indeed. It would be more sad if this giraffe was artificially inseminated or forced to breed for the purposes of the zoo. I don't know much about animal birth either, but maybe someone forced her to carry a baby when she wasn't ready.

  12. I hate zoos. Large animals like giraffes and elephants have many problems, including problems with pregnancy and birth, because they are out of shape and cannot move the way they normally do, walking miles and miles every day.

  13. Good point, Julia. I hate zoos, too. A baby giraffe recently died at a zoo close to where I live. "Failure to thrive" was the official cause of death. Yeah right. Try "unnatural circumstances" for one.

  14. I had my babies at home before it became vogue again. Both sides of the family were concerned. Had complications with several and everything turned out fine. I was small and I birthed a 9.5 pound boy and a 8.5 boy and a 6.5 girl and a 5.0 girl. I loved having my babies at home. Fast forward 10 years later and I did a psychology internship in the NICU. Greatly affirmed my decision to home birth. What "they" don't tell the parents.....while nature takes it's course with animals...i don't believe birthing in a zoo is natural at all. Where did we come up with the idea that animals needed human intervention? Wonder what their infant mortality stats were in the wild

  15. I am an unassisted birther, and a midwife, so bearing that in mind, I feel that it is important to acknowledge that while our design is perfect in all of God's creations, and I believe that God's plan for us each is perfect, as well, sometimes death is the plan and there is nothing to fear in the return to our Creator. Intervention may have been right in many cases, but that shouldn't necessarily mean that a failure to "rescue" would be wrong, or that the end result was definitely avoidable somehow.

  16. Very sad. Too bad vets and medicos alike subscribe to the notion that we must do something, anything,and that waiting is never an option.

  17. This is sad. I hate zoos. I don't care about mortality rates in zoos vs. wild. Animals should be left to live freely, not caged up for our entertainment.

  18. My name is Noel and this was especially sad to read. :(

  19. Sometimes things die and we dont always know why. It happens. I think this is the toughest lesson for humans to accept, life on life's terms.

  20. I fully agree with Khadijah.

  21. What I am very curious to hear about from the "leave it undisturbed" community (which I happen to consider myself a part of in most cases) is how comfortable are those people with death when it occurs, be it human or other creature? And how prepared are they to accept that, whether left alone or with intervention, death sometimes happens in all cases? I am completely of the believe that interventions generally cause more harm than good overall and should be generally avoided (hence my unassisted birth nature), yet not intervening doesn't entirely prevent death....I know this to be true firsthand. And, so as a person who takes charge of my own decision making and is prepared to accept those consequences regardless of outcome, I am just wondering how others feel about these things because the topic greatly interests me.

    In the giraffe situation, knowing some about animal birth, I feel that this animal was likely to die with or without intervention. In fact, had a cesarean been performed earlier on, both mother and baby would likely have lived. But were they meant to? As with all creatures, the act of delivery will always bring some death and, while yes very intense to experience, why sad?

    Just kind of thinking out loud here. Death is so frequently talked about as this scary thing to be avoided at all cost- on one side avoided with intervention and on the other side avoided be being unhindered. None of us enjoy the experience of losing a loved one, this is true. Yet, death is as natural as birth, also completely inevitable for all creatures, and is an experience that can be prayerfully celebrated.

    Just a little personal experience note I'll share. More than 6 years ago I was birthing in the hospital and nearly died from blood loss (primarily iatrogenic, I believe). The one thing I felt certain of after that experience is that we are all just as prepared for dying as we are for being born. I shouldn't have needed proof that this was part of our design to accept the fate when the time comes, but the blessing was shared with me anyway. Others I have met who have brushed with death have reported the same feeling of complete acceptance and safety.

  22. I actually work as a midwife in a majority world country (Senegal) regularly and live there part-time, so I do experience birth there also. I am grateful for interventions when they are desired. Where I have worked I have sometimes had no supplies available at all, but who I am speaking to here are the women that prefer to birth alone because they believe it is safest. On the whole, research shows it IS, but safest doesn't mean completely preventing the possibility of death. And, hiring a midwife for homebirth in any country doesn't mean completely preventing death, either. We live in a culture where most want someone to blame when something goes "wrong," so I am just asking the unhindered living population to share their thoughts, if they so choose to.

  23. I also will add that, in my highly medicalized birth, my children did not survive it. I grieved for them and I have been with many women that have grieved their own losses.

    Grief, too, is a normal part of the process. Over the years I have let go of my judgment about the choices people make in their own births, and I am expressing no judgement here toward anyone who makes any choice that is different from I would choose. I am not implying that interventions shouldn't exist either, just that I prefer to avoid them and I am comfortable with the responsibility that comes with. I just have a curiosity as a midwife and sister mother to hear what others think and feel.

  24. the most horrid thing: they gave her LESS THAN TWO HOURS before they gave her "assistance"?!?!?! what the hell.

  25. so sad! They should have just let her do what nature intended

  26. Khadijah ~ I've thought about this a lot over the past several years (before and during birth experiences at home). I had a midwife (wise woman!) who worked as an ER nurse as well, and said she'd NEVER step foot into the hospital to birth. She saw the outcomes first hand and knew that she was safer birthing at home no matter what. In any event, all her babies were over 11 pounds (each one arriving in its own time). She was a rather small woman. And one of her babies was 14lbs and turned sideways. "Stuck" in birth, she realized very vividly that death is a normal part of the life cycle, and said she had a serene peace in carrying out normal birth, in really believing in birth, and knowing that if death resulted, it was part of the plan all along. Her 14lb baby ended up turning (as most do during late labor) and exited just fine. But her story struck me as significant -- to be REALLY okay with whatever life brings, with whatever normal birth brings, is powerful.

    Needless to say, I too, would birth unassisted before ever stepping foot in a hospital again (my first was born via c-section).

  27. Actually, as a veterinarian, I can say that in hooved mammals, if you do not see both hooves appear at the same time, in the proper position (toes pointing up), you have a problem that will require intervention.

    Giraffes can also be difficult to sedate, from what I understand, with death being a potential outcome.

    Birth in livestock generally also goes quickly, so if the foal/calf/piglet does not appear within 20-30 minutes of the onset of hard labor, there is something wrong that requires immediate attention.

    Interference with normal labor and delivery is generally not recommended or performed in animals as with humans ... Us veterinarians know better than that .... And we also know that when we do have to interfere, the outcome is usually significantly poorer than our human counterparts, because the normal birth process is so rapid and leaves little room for error on human or nature's part.

    It is very stressful delivering animal babies... I used to breed horses, so I have BTDT both as owner, breeder and veterinarian. I have also delivered calves, pigs, goats, sheep, dogs and cats.

    This is a very sad situation, but sometimes it happens, and I am sure the veterinarians did all they could to save the giraffes.

  28. Birth issues among all animals are perhaps 10% or less, where human assistance is necessary or could result in a positive outcome.

    However, as I stated earlier, normal birth for a prey species is extremely rapid, so when it does not go as it should, there can literally be just seconds to minutes between life and death for the dam and/or the offspring.

    Failure to thrive is extremely common in prey species as well, and that is because of the type of placenta they have, one that does not allow antibodies to cross. They rely on the ability of the dam to produce high quality colostrum, which then the neonate needs to properly suck and absorb to provide immunity against disease. Any problem with this can lead to failure to thrive, and it is very common, so common in fact that there is a blood test done on foals when they are a few hours old to predict which mares/foals will have such issues. In the wild, these neonates die within several days to weeks.

  29. Well, if they know that interventions WILL cause a poorer result, why did they give the mama giraffe the sedation in the first place?

  30. and I agree with the statement: "Birth intervention: Bad for mammals of all kinds."

  31. If animals are going to die in a natural process like birth, I would feel better if there were no human intervention. I can handle that, but meddling just makes me feel like they would have survived otherwise. You can't really know, because it can only go one way.

  32. Lily: i agree.
    and its really easy to see the effect it has on human babies; just LOOK at society! ! its not a joke, and its not coincidence that people in the world are becoming increasingly more self centered, angry, depressed, violent.... its a combination of factors, but above all, it starts in infancy. its even becoming knowledge that if you dont breastfeed, your body mourns the same way as if the baby had died. how do you connect with your baby when your body feels as if the baby died? i dont know. many moms do the best they cant and it still doesnt work. many moms do the best they can and it seems to be fine in the end. but really, theres a big gaping hole; its not about choice, its about biology; things are supposed to happen the most perfect, natural way possible. and when it doesnt, this is the world we get.

  33. Even in situations where there is a "struggle" or "potential risk", it is better not to intervene with a wild animal in labor. Interventions upon animals actually stop labor due to the rise in adrenaline and fear of humans. Just check out that elephant video where the baby wasn't breathing and the mom took care of the "problem" all on her own.

    Interventions are even more risky to wild animals who do not have the ability to process what is happening to them and do not understand the intentions of humans. They have a very instinctual birth process (as it hasn't been damaged by birth culture). To interfere with that instinct presents the animal with significant risks!

  34. I think they're between a rock and a hard place... having raised livestock on a farm, I know that sometimes, despite your best efforts, malpresentation can kill both mom and calf. Yet, in those instances, if you just stand by and let them die and "not mess with them".... you'll always wonder "what if" you could have provided some assistance and saved one or both of them?

    At some point, you have to try. The potential benefits outweigh any risk when it's clear they're going to die anyways. And being in a zoo type setting, if they hadn't tried to do something when it was clear there was a problem, then their heads would be on a pole for letting the giraffes die and standing by and doing nothing...

    So although the deaths may or may not have something to do with the intervention, in these cases, you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't... and at least they can say they made an effort to help her when they saw she was in trouble.

    From the sounds of the story, things weren't going to have a good outcome, regardless.

    But I do agree with your post, and I think it's a good discussion to have anyway!

  35. Enith, not to be argumentative, but in a case where a calf is stuck because of malpresentation, and clearly deceased... if the mother can't pass it herself, she will die of exhaustion or infection if not assisted. And in this case, it seems the giraffe wasn't tame enough to tolerate help without sedation... so it was probably a case of, leave the giraffe and the dead calf and watch her die slowly, or try to sedate and help dislodge the calf, and risk side effects from anesthesia. Either way, the giraffe is screwed..... pretty much, but in the event they were successful at removing the calf and she tolerated the anesthesia, it could have saved her life.

  36. Just to clarify, a one hoof presentation almost always means mom won't be able to pass the baby on her own. At least in cows... because the shoulder and/or knee of the calf will catch on the pubic bone if the leg is extending downwards, or curled backwards. Like so-

    I'm sure it's similar for giraffes, maybe even moreso because of the sheer length of their legs! lol

    In a domesticated animal, it's usually simple enough to reach in, push the calf back in some to unbend and pull the other leg forward so the hoof can present, but I'd imagine sedation is necessary for such a procedure in an animal who isn't used to that kind of human contact.

    Oh, and after my diarrhea of the mouth (fingers?), messing with birth DOES cause more problems than it prevents!

    I was just wanting to shed a little light and perspective on why such an intervention might have been the best option in this case. :)

  37. I am wondering if (in settings such as zoos, and occasionally on farms) simply being present - or nearby, watching - a birthing animal with heightened senses, if this can impact her relaxation and movement and therefore impact presentation?

    Could presentation be impacted by other factors associated with zoo/caged/farm life? or is it always strictly biological/physiological and nothing to do with social/mental/hormonal?

  38. I will still stand by this statement though: "Birth intervention: Bad for mammals of all kinds."

  39. that makes a lot of sense Danelle! I heard of the story about a rat not able to birth when a cat was around (it was an experiment), they removed the cat from the scene and the rat birth w/o any complications, almost immediately after the cat was removed.

  40. Stephanie, I have ALWAYS noticed that with farm animals too!! Isn't it neat! They will almost always calf in the wee hours of the night or morning when the farmer is done for the night or before he can get grandfather would always get up earlier to go check a momma who he knew was ready to calve and sure enough she'd be licking up her new baby.

    Don't these guys know the fight or flight is still innate in even us humans but even more so in animals. Ugh makes me sick that they can't just leave NATURE alone!

    "we administered a mild sedative to calm Noel so that veterinarians and keepers could get closer and assist in the birth."

    That said, I do think that death is part of life...but these vets have blood on their hands for their ignorance. If they would have left the baby alone, I would not blame them at all...I BLAME them for MESSING with mama and nature! Same goes with human babies, I would not blame a mama, if her baby died from a natural birth even if she had refused invasive treatments...who says we are God and can control who lives or dies?!? Why can a mother choose to kill/abort her unborn child but a mom who refuses a possible/likely dangerous intervention (just pick one) and if the baby dies, SHE is at fault? Babies die it is just a fact of life. And we can mourn their loss for a time but in the end, they aren't suffering, their soul has moved on. I feel SORRY for babies hooked up to machines for their whole life living in sadness and pain.

    I loved this post you had a while back regarding animal vs human birth

  41. Keep in mind that for population equilibrium, each mother will have approximately two offspring that will survive to reproduce.

    As for intervention, we've already intervened by putting the animal in a zoo. And in many cases hunting it to near extinction. And if not that then destroying its habitat. What's a little sedative?

  42. Khadijah, knowing about how intervention failed you I think you have a very unique perspective on birth and death. I am also an unassisted birther and one of the things that convinced me unassisted birth was important was the death of a friend due to amniotic fluid embolism. She was induced with pitocin for being postdates and the pit mixed with an allergic reaction to narcotic pain relief killed her and almost killed her unborn baby. The saddest part is the fear of the death of her baby from being so overdue (only 2 weeks postdates at that) was what lead to her own death. Perhaps if she had calmly accepted that he was unlikely to die and if he did it was his destiny, her son would have a mother today.

    This is the state of birth in the USA today. Intervene or "the baby is going to die" and yet if they just let things be and accepted that death is sometimes inevitable then there would be less death overall. We as a culture are at war with death. We demonize it and try to eliminate it but it can't be eliminated, not the way American and other western doctors are try to anyway.

    That poor giraffe may have been interventioned to death, maybe the baby's presentation was such that they were both meant to die. It doesn't really matter if they could have saved them because by intervening they interfered with the natural course of life and death and perhaps (likely IMHO) they took away that animal's destiny whether it was to be a life without a that calf, life with a calf that just needed more time and less vets watching, or perhaps a natural death. Wild animals find their way I think and there was no reason to intervene and a whole lot of risk.

    Someone very wise once told me that sometimes a soul comes for a purpose. Maybe that purpose was to be born at 21 weeks and return to the spirit world. Maybe that soul was meant to have a baby and experience death while giving birth to a new life. Who are we to determine what each soul's needs are or what God's plan is for them? Who are we to determine when someone is meant to live or die?

    If this is who I think it is, I'm so happy to "see" you online.


  43. I have a "birthing pasture" for my mares that is as safe and secure as I can make it. I provide a large round bale of hay a few weeks before the expected due date and let the mare spread the hay around as she eats it. Most times they will birth on a part of this spread hay. I also have a thing that fits around the mares neck that has a monitor attached to it. When she lays down for an extended period, the alarm goes off in the house on the monitor and I know to flip on the camera in that pen and watch her birth the foal. It is nice because I can watch without being in her way and/or making the mare nervous. Also, if she has problems, I know it quickly and can help if needed. So far, in 14 years of breeding horses, I haven't lost a foal. We also get the mare and new foal back out into a larger pasture so the foal can stretch its legs and play as soon as possible. Now, after having said all that, remember this is a zoo and the larger pen isn't available. But, perhaps a camera system like I have would help? It is sad to lose an animal like this and I feel for the zoo keepers - they do become attached to their animals...