Dallas Zoo Says Giraffe's Death a ‘Fluke,' Defends Safety Record

A day after the tragic death of a young giraffe, NBC 5 Investigates is looking into the safety record at the Dallas Zoo where officials say a fluke accident, not a zookeepers mistake, led to the death of the beloved creature.

Kipenzi, the baby giraffe whose live birth was broadcast online to the world in April, died immediately after she broke three vertebrae in her neck Tuesday afternoon when she ran into the perimeter edge of her habitat.

In a statement released to NBC 5, zoo officials said zookeepers were routinely moving the giraffes into their night barn when 3-month-old Kipenzi began to scamper in the feed yard, made a sharp turn, collided with the wall and broke her neck at about 5:30 p.m.

Following Kipenzi's death, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on The U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a thorough investigation into the animal's death.

"The USDA needs to step in and do its job on behalf of the animals -- conduct a thorough investigation and take all appropriate enforcement action against the Dallas Zoo," said Brittany Peet, PETA deputy director.

NBC 5 Investigates began its own investigation and learned Tuesday night that federal inspectors ordered the zoo to make changes last summer to correct concerns about "animal handling" after a staff member was hospitalized after being attacked by a lion that escaped its enclosure and had to be tranquilized. Zoo officials acknowledged at the time that the incident was the result of a staffer's mistake.

That incident wasn't the first time the USDA raised concerns about animal handling at the Dallas Zoo.

In 2011 the USDA told zoo officials to "re-evaluate" employee training and supervision after a chimp escaped. The report said an employee involved "was also involved in a gorilla escape" a year earlier. Seven years before that, in 2004, a lowland gorilla named Jabari escaped and attacked a zoo visitor before being shot and killed by Dallas police.

During their most recent visit to the Dallas Zoo, in June, the USDA found no violations.

The Dallas Zoo defended its past safety record Wednesday and said Kipenzi's death was a fluke accident and not the result of a zookeeper's mistake. The zoo said Kipenzi has been limited to smaller enclosure yards to avoid injury during the first months of her life

"There was nothing in that yard that she had not encountered before. But some fluke incident -- she hit something," said Harrison Edell, the zoo's senior director of living collections.

In an email Wednesday to NBC 5 Investigates, Dallas Zoo spokeswoman, Laurie Holloway said, "This incident yesterday was a tragic accident, and absolutely had nothing to do with improper animal care. Our safety and animal husbandry policies are state-of-the-art."

The USDA told NBC 5 Investigates an inspector will likely visit the zoo soon to look into Kipenzi's death. Also, The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a group that accredits the Dallas Zoo, said it will ask the zoo for a report on what happened and what it will do to prevent it from happening again in the future. The association said deaths like this involving giraffes are extremely rare.

The Dallas Zoo's Giants of the Savanna habitat, where Kipenzi lived, was named the No. 3 zoo habitat in the nation and the best in Texas in USA Today's 10 Best travel ranking earlier this year.

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