A giraffe baby boom comes to a west bank breeding facility

(WVUE) - At first glance, the occupants of a new animal facility on the west bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans might seem out of place.

However, curators say the giraffes at the Audubon Nature Institute's Species Survival Center feel right at home, including a 6-foot-tall baby peering out of thick woods.

"They sometimes go in the woods (in the wild)," said curator Michelle Hatwood. "They're forested animals. They eat trees."

The baby born last month has yet to be named. Audubon and its partners from San Diego Zoo Global are sponsoring an internet naming contest on Facebook. The choices are between "T-Challa," king of the Wakanda in Marvel's Black Panther movie, or Zulu, after the ethnic group in Africa and the Mardi Gras krewe.

The giraffe was the second born at the facility, which opened last year. However, a third giraffe was named "Poco" after this year's Rex in Mardi Gras. Lynes "Poco" Sloss, a longtime Audubon Nature Institute board member, reigned as the King of Carnival on Feb. 13.

Since they arrived here last year, their growing population of nine giraffes carved their own paths through the woods and grew accustomed to the place, curators say.

"This is a fantastic space for them," Hatwood said.

However, it presents a daily challenge for keepers who must trek through the woods each day to find the animals.

"They blend in really well and it's extremely thick and very hard to find them at first," said Chris St. Romain, the primary giraffe keeper.

Developing a bond between keeper and animal is important in case a giraffe has medical or other needs.

"Probably the first two hours of our day is just hiking through the woods, looking for all our giraffes," Hatwood said.

The Species Survival Center takes up 400 acres hugging the Mississippi River near the Orleans-Plaquemines Parish line. The partnership, which Audubon and San Diego zoos have dubbed The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife, aims to breed various species for zoo populations, including some endangered.

While the facility is not open to the general public, many of the animals there will one day be viewed in zoos around the country.

San Diego has enjoyed success breeding animals at its sprawling Safari Park, where animals live in much larger enclosures.

The giraffe enclosure at the Algiers facility stretches over 46 acres, nearly equaling the size of the entire Audubon Zoo. Theoretically, animals living in more natural spaces will have more success breeding.

Joel Hamilton, General Curator at the Audubon Zoo, said the idea is "to increase the sustainability of some of these animals so that we have an impact of the populations of North American zoos."

The partnership concentrates on large hoofed animals, such as African antelope.

All of the new moms were carrying babies when they arrived here and a fourth giraffe is known to be pregnant. However, keepers believe a fifth baby could be on the way, marking the first once conceived at the new facility.

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