Early death of zebra leaves questions about program’s future

Raylan, the 4-year-old Hartmann's mountain zebra who died on Jan. 30 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute Photo credit: Dolores Reed, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

The recent death of a 4-year-old Hartmann’s mountain zebra at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal is set to bring uncertainty about the institute’s program for the endangered species.

On Jan. 30, Raylan, a male mountain zebra, died at the facility after enduring abdominal pain. Kelly Helmick, a zookeeper with the biology institute, said that zookeepers noticed Raylan was in pain during their daily morning tests.

“He was found to be showing signs of discomfort, which he displayed by lying down, getting up, lying down, getting up,” Helmick said. “Being restless when he was walking and sort of kicking.”

Those are common symptoms in domestic horses, Helmick said, but they are rarely found in zebras.

“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I rarely see this in zebras,” Helmick said.

Raylan’s particular problem stemmed from a small amount of fetal tissue that remained in his body long after his birth.

Typically, that tissue disappears eventually, but occasionally it will remain in animals. But while the fetal tissue led to Raylan’s death, Helmick said the zebra could have survived with the tissue problem.

“It’s something that he could live his whole entire life with, and we never would have known,” Helmick said. “Or it could have happened like it did.”

Raylan’s bowels became caught in the tissue, causing the bowels to die from a lack of blood supply.

Zookeepers rushed to give him care, Helmick said, and the institute brought in an equine surgical specialist, but it was too late.

The surgeon determined that Raylan had less than a 10 percent chance of surviving the surgery. Helmick said the veterinarians decided to euthanize him because “we did not want to prolong his suffering.”

Following Raylan’s death, the institute has to figure out how to handle its Hartmann mountain zebra program. The institute has only had the zebras since 2016, and they only have one other zebra at the site: Xolani, a 5-year-old female Hartmann mountain zebra.

The institute was planning on breeding the two animals as part of a plan to help save the endangered species. But with only one zebra remaining, they will have to either receive a new male zebra or send Xolani to another location.

“We would like to keep her and bring in another male,” Helmick said. “But that’s not been discussed internally, because…it’s only been a few days since [Raylan] passed away.”

Because the Hartmann’s zebra program is new to the institute, Raylan’s death also comes before the institute necessarily knows where future zebras will be headed. The institute has not had any foals, so it has not determined where offspring should go in order to prevent future inbreeding and to make sure that the species is able to survive.

The Hartmann’s mountain zebra is endangered because of hunting and habitat restrictions. The biology institute  is participating in a plan with other institutions designed to facilitate the species’ survival.

“We want to try and learn what we can about the species in terms of species recovery,” Helmick said. “That’s one of our goals here at the institute, is not just to provide excellent care to our animals, but to learn and grow from them so that we can help ourselves and others maintain their population.”