Meet Lance, the lifesaving giraffe

July 27, 2018
Hannah Wagle, Associate Content Specialist

We went behind the scenes of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the setting for Nat Geo WILDs new show Secrets of the Zoo, and spoke with the veterinary team behind the nations first giraffe blood bank and its main cracker-loving donor.

Did you know? A group of giraffes is called a tower. We can totally see why. Each veterinary professional comes with a road full of experiences that led them there. For Priya Bapodra, BVMH, MS, MRCVS, it was the elephants at her uncle's front door.

“I think I loved animals from an early age,” Dr. Bapodra says, “and my uncle was a vet in India and he treated a lot of elephants. They'd just walk up to his door at home, and he'd walk outside and treat that elephant, and then wait for the next one to come up. So I had a lot of experience with that kind of stuff growing up.”

Suffice to say, helping elephants had always been a dream of hers. “In the 80s, elephant poaching was becoming a big deal,” Dr. Bapodra recalls. “There was always something on the news or shows and I would cry. In the middle of the night, I'd go and wake up my parents and say sad things like, ‘How are we gonna save the elephants?'” 

Despite her affinity for animals like elephants, however, Dr. Bapodra wasn't familiar with the everyday pet. “My parents were super anti-animal,” she says. “We weren't allowed to have cats or dogs-so this might be my sort of retaliation. But we had a parrot and fish and rabbits and other pets that weren't allowed in the house a whole lot. As soon as I got into vet school my parents were like, ‘What are you doing?'”  

After graduating from the Royal Veterinary College in London, Dr. Bapodra knew she wanted to do nondomestic animal care. “In my last year of veterinary school, I focused primarily on elephant reproduction. I kind of hounded a bunch of people and looked at a bunch of hormone profiles and looked into whether you could use urine for artificial insemination-and the answer is no.

Then Dr. Bapodra went into general practice. “I think it's very important and gives perspective for what you want to do and lets you develop good basic skills. I worked in a charity clinic back home and saw around 100 patients a day-it was very high intensity.”

After earning a master's in wild animal health, she started applying for residencies. “I was very, very lucky to be selected for the conservation medicine program at the zoo's conservation park. I was there for four years, and then it was just very serendipitous that they needed vets at the zoo at that time I was finished with the program, so I just transferred over into a staff vet from there,” she says.

Lance, the lifesaving giraffe, hangs around hoping for some lettuce. Now, Dr. Bapodra has amassed quite a few feats-not only does she spend her life caring for the animals kept at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, based in Columbus, Ohio, but she's also one of the driving forces behind the nation's first giraffe blood blank. The blood is banked for use at the Columbus Zoo, but it's also available for any giraffe keepers in the nation to utilize.

For those of you who aren't familiar with giraffe bloodwork, this is an incredibly important feat. “A lot of babies are not thriving or doing as well and are at risk of dying of septicemia-especially if they don't latch onto their mother and get colostrum in that really critical period of about 12 hours after birth,” Dr. Bapodra explains. “One of the things we've learned to do is be a lot more aggressive, and sometimes that involves giving plasma intravenously. So instead of getting antibodies from the mammary gland from that first colostrum, we shortcut it straight to their bloodstream.”

In the world of giraffes, this is a well-known issue. “A really close colleague of mine at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo looked at the data from giraffes that have been born in the last 50 years,” says Dr. Bapodra, “and she found that the biggest group of deaths seems to be the neonates-those early calves that either don't latch properly to get that nutrition and colostrum or they get traumatic injuries or whatever. We looked at that list and saw that we as humans looking after these animals could be prophylactically impactful by being prepared for that eventuality.”

All of this and more can be seen in National Geographic's upcoming show, Secrets of the Zoo, which follows the animals and the army of people who work 24/7 to create one of the best zoo experiences in the county. This show especially showcases the incredible human-animal bond between caretakers and animals. “We just do it because we want to help, and we want to help giraffes in human care,” Dr. Bapodra says in the episode.

The pilot episode, “Stand by Your Manatee,” focuses on an orphaned baby manatee that was rescued and brought to the Columbus Zoo for rehabilitation, tiger cubs first being introduced to the world, and a peek at the lifesaving done by a giraffe blood donor named Lance and the importance of the blood bank.

In the episode, they delve into the process of taking Lance's blood (spoiler: it involves a tennis ball on a stick, a team of veterinary professionals and, most importantly, crackers). Once they've gotten the necessary amount of blood, Dr. Bapodra gives the giraffe a kiss before he leaves. Off to the side, the producer remarks, “Lance is a real lifesaver.”

Dr. Bapodra vehemently agrees before shedding tears. “It's silly to get so emotional about something so exciting,” she says in the episode, “but this isn't just a Priya project, this isn't just an animal health project-this is something that the entire Columbus Zoo has really been behind. The National Giraffe Bank has actually sent plasma out to six different institutions, and three of those calves have survived.”

“Lance's blood will be shipped across the country,” the show's narrator explains, “treating newborn giraffes unable to nurse-saving their lives.”

Secrets of the Zoo premieres July 29 on Nat Geo WILD.