Just as the Baton Rouge Zoo was gearing up to announce a public voting campaign to name the 21st giraffe born on the premises, that newborn’s brother Burreaux — named in homage to LSU Heisman recipient Joe Burrow — came down with a strange cough. The 20-month-old giraffe died 24 hours later.
The public was told the next day that Burreaux died Sept. 7 from a mysterious acute respiratory illness.
In the week that followed, unanswered questions surrounding his death elicited concerns from visitors. Some thought the giraffe had somehow caught a fatal case of coronavirus.
Emails The Advocate requested among officials at the zoo and the top administrator with the city-parish’s parks and recreation system reveal that zoo employees were asked by guests if Burreaux’s mysterious death meant animals there could contract COVID. The emails also provide behind-the-scenes insight into the final moments of the beloved giraffe’s life and how zoo administrators were worried his death would trigger negative perceptions from the public.
Burreaux ended up testing negative for coronavirus, but zoo officials still don’t know the exact cause of his death. Those answers will come within a few weeks once they have the results from a necropsy.
Burreaux, a beloved giraffe at the Baton Rouge Zoo, has died.
“At our facility, we have no COVID-positive animals,” said Dr. Michael Warshaw, the zoo’s resident veterinarian. “I can’t speak to other facilities and what other zoos are dealing with. At the time, we had no evidence giraffes were a susceptible species. But we do know he did not have COVID.”
Warshaw went on to say the zoo’s staff are “extremely” attentive to the health of the remaining three giraffes given the lingering questions about Burreaux’s death.
“We’re just keeping a close eye on everyone,” he said.
Burreaux was a popular attraction at the zoo, so much so that guests in the past had even climbed into his enclosure to take selfies with the giraffe.
Zookeepers noted Burreaux started exhibiting an irregular cough the afternoon of Sept. 6, according to a detailed narrative Warshaw emailed Jim Fleshman, the zoo’s deputy director, around 8 a.m. Sept. 8.
BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo visitors can’t seem to get enough of Burreaux, the young giraffe. Lately, some of that interest has crossed a line.
According to Warshaw’s account chronicling the giraffe’s finial moments, Burreaux was given a “broad spectrum antibiotic” and anti-inflammatory the following morning after keepers noticed he was agitated, his cough had worsened, he was heavily salivating and had a drooping head and neck.
Zoo staff began consulting with numerous veterinarians across the country and at LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine around 10 a.m. Sept. 7 and were advised to also treat Burreaux with a muscle relaxant-spasmolytic drug with oxytocin in case the giraffe had ingested something that was blocking his esophagus.
Burreaux was observed being calmer about an hour later, but was still coughing.
When there wasn’t any overall change in his condition at 1 p.m. Sept. 7, the zoo’s staff were preparing to immobilize Burreaux through anesthesia the next morning so they could treat him more intensively.
At 4 p.m., zookeepers said Burreaux was still alert and responding normally to sounds but that his sickly condition was “unchanged.”
Burreaux collapsed at 11:55 p.m. Sept. 7.
Warshaw wrote that he rushed to the zoo but Burreaux had died by the time he got there.
The emails show that chatter among higher ups at the zoo and BREC quickly shifted around how to announce Burreaux’s death to the public.
Spotted in Baton Rouge: a baby giraffe.
BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson emailed members of parks system’s Board of Commissioners to inform them of the giraffe’s death, assuring them the zoo’s staff had consulted multiple experts to try and save Burreaux’s life and that they were holding off on making any public statements about his death until Warshaw was available to answer questions from the media.
“I am told the animal was in perfect health until sometime Monday when it began showing signs of respiratory trouble such as coughing and difficulty breathing,” Wilson wrote in the Sept. 8 email. “If and when the media begins to inquire, we then will release a statement.”
Later that day, Baton Rouge Zoo Director Phil Frost emailed Fleshman, Warshaw and a spokeswoman stressing they announce Burreaux’s death that Wednesday in order to gain more favorable coverage from local media.
“… if we wait too late in the day, (it) can be perceived by the media that we were holding it from them, waiting for (their) news deadline, and that could affect their attitude in reporting,” Frost’s email reads.
In an email to Wilson later that day Frost wrote, “We are not telling the media what animal ahead of time, fearing they will go ahead and write the story quickly for the 6 p.m. news, but we are saying we are announcing the ‘passing of an endearing animal at the zoo.'”
A spotty record
Baton Rouge’s zoo has faced lots of public scrutiny after losing its accreditation status in 2018.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums dinged the facility mostly for its aging infrastructure, attractions and animal exhibits, which at the time hadn’t been updated since in opened in the 1970s.
Its public image was further stained by a series of animal escapes within a 16-month period and several high-profile animal deaths around in recent years.
The zoo is currently implementing a multi-phased, multimillion dollar facelift designed to help recapture its accreditation status with AZA. Frost said Burreaux’s unexpected death doesn’t hinder that.
“Our doctor reached out to numerous veterinarians and accredited zoos all over the country and basically everyone said ‘wow, we’ve never seen this before’,” Frost said in reference to Burreaux’s death. “This is giving us an opportunity from a scientific standpoint to potentially learn something we can share with other zoos if this happens to one of their animals.”
Still, it’s clear from the emails in the days following the announcement of Burreaux’s death that zoo staff were being effected by the chatter they were seeing on social media.
In a Sept. 8 email Frost sent to Warshaw and Fleshman around 7 p.m., he expressed complete confidence Warshaw had used every resource available to treat Burreaux and potentially save his life.
Frost went on to say, “My only advise is do not listen to those on social media who received their [Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine] from Google. Rational people know that these things happen in zoo hospitals and in public hospitals.”
In his response, sent at 8:26 a.m. the next day, Warshaw said he tries his best to avoid the negative comments aimed at the zoo on social media any time an animal dies.
Frost responded by encouraging Warshaw to read the comments the public posted on the Zoo’s Facebook page instead. “It is full of kind thoughts and condolences unlike the media sites.”
“The decisions that were made were absolutely the best medical decisions that could be made at the time,” Frost said in an interview with The Advocate last week. “Unfortunately, when you work at a zoo, birth and death are a reality.”
As for Burreaux’s sister, Frost said the zoo will put a pause on the public naming campaign.
“Out of respect for what happened, we’re slowing that down some,” he said. “We felt it would be rather insensitive. We’ll be doing that in the future after we’ve put some time between this.”