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Curious Louisville: What Happens To Zoo Animals When They Die?

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We know that all dogs go to heaven, but what happens to the Louisville Zoo animals when they die?

This Curious Louisville question actually has a variety of answers — ranging from the zoo’s educational programs to a baby pool on the rooftop of a Bellarmine University science building.

Dr. Zoli Gymesi is the senior staff veterinarian at the Louisville Zoo.

“Let me start by saying that any time we lose a zoo animal, it’s a sad day,” Gymesi said. “But with any loss, we try to maximize what we can learn from their death.”

He said that the zoo has a strict set of procedures after an animal dies.

“We have a dedicated necropsy room, and in the necropsy room is where we would do post-mortem evaluations,” Gymesi said. “That’s gross dissection of the animal after it has passed, you usually get a good feel there, and then you harvest tissues that gets sent off to a veterinary pathologist for microscopic evaluation.”

At that point, there is a full pathologic evaluation of the animal — cause of death, what kind of issues it had, and what zoo staff can learn from the death.

“Hides and bones, sometimes we will save some of those remains to use in our educational programs,” Gymesi said. “After that, whatever remains of the animals will be cremated. In some cases where cremation is not practical, like with real megavertabrates — big animals — they might get buried on zoo grounds.”

Gymesi said the animal graves don’t have markers because it’s more about the staff members who had worked with the animals being able to pay their final respects or visit if they choose.

But sometimes the remains don’t stay on zoo grounds.

Gymesi said the zoo has working relationships with a number of researchers, universities and labs across the country; one example is Dr. David Porta at Bellarmine University.

“Dr Porta studies fracture biomechanics and bones,” Gymesi said. “Sometimes we will save limbs from animals that have passed and he will use that in his study.”

And this relationship is the basis for one of the biggest (or, ahem, tallest) campus legends to come from Bellarmine University: that a giraffe carcass somehow ended up stored on the rooftop of Pasteur Hall. By way of disclosure, I attended Bellarmine, which is where I first heard this story.

“At some point in the end of March 2004, a very large male giraffe passed away,” Porta said. “Keep in mind, this giraffe was in its 20s, which is very old. Out in the wild, a giraffe is going to slow down and some lion is going to take it out of circulation. In a zoo setting, these animals can survive much, much longer.”

And this means, Porta explained, they start to see the problems of old age.

“Such as hip issues,” Porta said. “When it finally passes away, I’m sure a lot of people were doing research on the animal. At some point they contacted me, and said if you’d like to get some of the bones for study ... so we were very excited to do that.”

He continued: “And while there, they asked if I would like to take the pelvis. They were curious about the hip problems with this giraffe, so they were very kind and asked if I would like to help them look at the hips.”

Porta left the zoo that day with several giraffe limbs and a pelvis, which has a diameter of about three feet and weighs 100 pounds.

But there was a problem.

“This still had the skin on and the muscle tissue, so I had to ‘deflesh them’ is the term we use, to get at the bones so we could see what happened with the hips,” Porta said.

And he needed a way to do this that would be quick and relatively mess-free on campus.

“I bought a small wading pool and I had that placed on the roof of our science building,” said Porta. “We’ve got some really great physical plant folks here at Bellarmine that are really game for anything. Most of those guys know me, so when I approach them, they know it’s going to be something weird. Then we used one of the cranes to lift the pelvis up onto the roof and set it in that pool.”

With the help of the late spring sun and some flies, the ‘defleshing’ process was off to a good start, but then Dr. Porta got a call.

“Well, while the giraffe was decomposing, this got to be May and I had taken a little time off, I’d left town, and I got a call from our secretary and she said. ‘There’s a problem in the science building, there are flies coming in through the vents,” Porta said.

Evidently, Porta said, there was a stack vent on the roof that wasn’t fully sealed. Flies swarmed a summer class. A call was made to the university president’s office. The vent was capped and a few years later, the school got a new science building.

The story has grown in the 13 years that have passed; when I was a student, I heard a variation that there were multiple giraffes in several baby pools. A version that’s a little closer to the truth is told on campus tours and the story will be documented in an upcoming book of university history.

But as outlandish as the giraffe story is, Porta said he learned something very emotionally important from it when he took the bones back to the zoo after examining them.

“I have to tell you, the zoo has some amazing people over there,” Porta said. “They are really caring people, they work very hard. They develop relationships with these animals, and that was something I wasn’t aware of since I work mainly in a human arena.”

He continued: “When I took these bones back over to show what had happened in the hips, there was probably a dozen people there — zookeepers and various staff and I mean, they were silent when I walked in with these bones. To them, they were learning what happened to their friend.”
You can  download this story, and be sure to subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts. Submit your own question at  curiouslouisville.org.