You might say, assuming a tolerance for puns, that to ask a company that specialises in making farm animal handling equipment to come up with something for giraffes was a tall order. But Farmquip took it in their stride.
When Wellington Zoo started planning an upgrade of the habitat that is home to aunt and niece duo Zahara and Zuri, and younger male giraffe Sunny, one of the early calls that GM Assets, Sustainability and Safety Chris Jerram made was to Brenden Watts.
“We were on site the following week,” the Farmquip General Manager says.
Farmquip has made cattle handling systems capable of dealing with bulls weighing more than 1000kg, and has also come up with custom-made equipment solutions for handling the likes of bison and buffalos, and for Halal and other specialist abattoirs here and overseas.
But giraffes present particular challenges apart from the obvious – their 4-6 metre height.
“Our primary concern is the welfare of the animals but also staff safety,” Chris says.
“The kick from a giraffe can kill a lion. Staff don’t ever work in the same space as a giraffe but they need to be able to inspect and trim their hooves and run other medical checks, and from time to time to administer injections and draw blood.”
Another reason for a ‘trainer’ – a capsule to hold the animal securely – is because giraffes and anesthetics are a notorious mix. It’s a long way for the animal to fall and when they’re prone their necks may need to be massaged to keep blood flowing to their brains. Getting them back on their feet when they’re woozy from drugs is also fraught.
“So a good trainer is definitely preferred.”
Brenden Watts says after a site visit to understand what Wellington Zoo staff appreciated from their existing system, and where they wanted to see improvements, Farmquip researched what was already in operation around the world, and also sent an engineer and a designer to inspect the giraffe enclosure at a zoo in Australia.
“We came away from all of that with a set of ideas on how we could tailor something for what the Wellington staff were looking for,” Brenden says.
In all, the research, design, manufacture and installation took eight months. The result is a trainer that is comfortable and safe for the animals and highly flexible for staff.
One entire side of the six metre structure can be moved in and out to cater for the different widths of the giraffes, and leave them less room to move around.
“We believe this system has many features not currently available [in giraffe trainers] anywhere else in the world.”
As well as a base weighing platform that measures up to several tonnes, there’s a platform two thirds of the way up to enable staff to be eye level with the giraffes to give them food rewards to help keep them calm and compliant, and to inspect neck and head parts. There are multiple other access points for checking other parts of their body, right down to their feet.
In a worst case scenario – the collapse of the giraffe – one entire side of the trainer can be removed to get the animal out.
The entire upgrade of the enclosure – including the special curved feeding rails also made by Farmquip – cost in the order of $450,000, with Wellington City Council and Pub Charity generously providing the lion’s share of funding.
That sort of expensive upgrade can only happen once in a decade, “so we needed to get it right,” Chris says.
“I think we’re at the leading edge of giraffe welfare in the world now.”
And Farmquip are as pleased as Wellington Zoo with the outcome. Zoos are very good at sharing knowledge and word may spread about the innovative design of the giraffe trainer.
“We’d like to think there’s a market out there for it; there are more than 1000 zoos in the world. Time will tell,” Brenden says.
Standing up for animal welfare truths
Okay, they’re a bit taller but as Federated Farmers Dairy Industry Council delegates found during one of their site visits during the National Council meetings in Wellington last month, giraffes and cows have a few uncannily similar traits. They’re both ruminants, they both have four stomachs and cloven hooves and they’re susceptible to many of the same diseases. And as the delegates heard from Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield, like our dairy farms the zoo from time to time cops some attention from activists who have their own views on animal welfare issues. As Karen urged the farmers, there’s work for both our sectors to show some courage and stand up to anyone who tries to unfairly twist public perceptions. The Feds leaders also visited CentrePort and another institution in the Capital sometimes referred to as a zoo – Parliament.