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A Heartfelt Goodbye

A HEARTFELT GOODBYE

by Dr. Michael Nance

I watched Makena be born – it was June 24, 2022. She was the first baby I got to witness coming into the world after moving to Abilene. I have witnessed quite a few giraffe births over the years as I have been a zoo veterinarian for decades. I watched her hit the ground, shake the birth fluids off her face, take her first few steps, and nudge along her momma, Jaime until she found her source of milk for the very first time. It was a moment I haven’t forgotten. 

At 8 months old Makena developed a moderate lameness in her left front leg and I spent time every week, sometimes every day, for over a year watching closely as she slowly healed from unwitnessed trauma that had injured her left shoulder early in her life. Every week I saw her improve and these frequent visits built a unique bond between us. After about a year of ongoing work, Makena was nearly back to 100% and ready for her next adventure. Planned almost since her birth, Makena would be traveling to a new zoo, just like so many juvenile giraffes before her.  

Then came the day of the much anticipated solar eclipse – April 8, 2024.  The night before had been a routine and uneventful shift of the giraffes from the outside yard to the back-holding and barn. Only on this morning, when Makena’s zoo keepers arrived at work, she was found deceased, lying on her right side with no sign of a struggle or any visible injuries. She had come into the barn the night before perfectly normal, in a dignified giraffe manner, but that fateful day she left the barn the only way a large mammal can when they are no longer breathing.  

Unlike most human health care professionals, veterinarians rarely have time to deal with their own grief before being called upon to tackle the hardest part of the job. It’s the part we don’t talk about publicly – having to dissect the very animal we have spent so much time caring for so we can get answers and understand what happened. We’re looking for clues through tears and clouded emotions with questions of “Why?” and “What happened?” flooding a time that should be reserved for grief.

Makena’s tissues were sent to one of the most experienced zoo pathologists in the country and the results were inconclusive as to the cause of her death.  How do you explain to a public who loved Makena and asks someone at the zoo every week “What happened? Why did she die?” that there are not always definitive answers? Life is full of anomalies. Lives cut short when no one expected such a tragedy and no good explanation is available. I have been a zoo veterinarian for over 25 years and I like answers – they offer explanations. But sometimes we are left with only questions. Makena’s death is just one of those. Her heart stopped and she dropped to the ground on a day when we were all prepared to look up and celebrate a rare event in the sky. We experienced two rare events that day, one of them joyous and one of them full of sorrow.

We remain deeply grateful for the outpouring of love and understanding during what was a particularly hard time for not just me, but the entire vet team, keeper staff, and zoo employees. We all, this entire community, love these animals that call Abilene home, they hold a special place in our hearts. Without more answers, all we can do is whisper a heartfelt goodbye to a dearly loved giraffe and be grateful for every day we had with her.

REMEMBERING MAKENA

Makena is born
June 24, 2022

Makena’s first public appearance
July 13, 2022

Makena and her brother, Fennessy
2022

Makena
March 22, 2023

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Makena
January 26, 2024

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