When staff at the Calgary Zoo tried to coax their new hippopotamus out of the crate that had held the 1,500-kilogram animal for the 30-hour journey from Colorado on Friday, they were startled to find the six-year-old couldn't stand.
Less than 24 hours later, Hazina - born and raised at the Denver Zoo and transferred to Calgary as part of an international breeding program - was dead. The hippo had been lying down for too long in the crate and succumbed to circulatory complications.
"Animals are moved all the time across North America and you do have the odd case where something goes wrong and this is, unfortunately, one of those cases," Doug Whiteside, a veterinarian at the Calgary Zoo, said yesterday, after news of the death was made public. "Once she got here, we did everything possible to save her life."
The Calgary Zoo has been plagued by bad news and bad luck in recent years.
Four western lowland gorillas have died at the zoo since last year. Three years ago, a newborn elephant died a month after being rejected by its mother. And now, the death of the new arrival is raising questions about the mechanics - and merits - of moving animals among zoos.
"There's no real conservation purpose in shipping hippos around," said Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck Canada. "They have no problem breeding in the wild. What you need to do is protect their habitat and make sure they're not poached for meat or for their tusks."
Hazina was shipped to Calgary as part of the Species Survival Program, which is overseen by the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to breed with one of the zoo's long-time residents. (Despite sharing a name, Hazina was not the hippo that was featured in the Telus television commercials and was the subject of a cruelty investigation at a zoo in Vancouver, in which charges were subsequently dropped.)
Officials at the Denver Zoo had been training Hazina for months to voluntarily enter the rectangular, wood and steel crate, which weighed about 1,100 kilograms empty.
About 8 a.m. last Thursday, the loading process began. By 10 a.m., the hippo was on a transport truck bound for Calgary with an unnamed shipping company. According to zoo officials, the company is internationally respected and had moved even larger animals, such as elephants, and particularly sensitive creatures, such as gorillas.
"It's common practice to stop every few hours to check the animals," said veterinarian Lynn Kramer, vice-president for biological programs with the Denver Zoo.
Dr. Kramer isn't sure when the last time Hazina was checked, but Dr. Whiteside suggested the hippo was last seen standing more than 10 hours before arriving in Calgary. Both zoos and the shipping company have launched investigations.
When Hazina got to Calgary Friday afternoon, all she could do was lift her head.
She was suffering from "pressure myopathy," which damaged her muscles and caused toxic byproducts to be released into the bloodstream, a process known to result in organ failure, Dr. Whiteside explained.
Zookeepers brought in a winch system to remove her from the crate, lift her into a pool to get the weight off her legs and began administering fluids and anti-inflammatory medication. By Saturday morning, she was bright, drinking and swimming.
"The keeper had even seen her do what they call a barrel roll, which shows she's happy when she's swimming in the water," Dr. Whiteside said. "She seemed to be doing okay. Just around noon, she suddenly just expired while she was in the pool."
Hazina's heart had stopped.
Dr. Kramer said animal welfare is the top priority in moving animals and many hippos have been successfully transported in that fashion. (One recently arrived safely in an African wildlife sanctuary after spending 26 hours in transit, including 10 hours on a plane.)
"We're really struggling with what we would have done differently to have a different outcome," Dr. Kramer said.
Dr. Whiteside said the hippo's temperament - to cope with stress by "hunkering down" in the crate - and the size of the crate might have been contributing factors.
"The crate was definitely large enough for when she was standing, but it was probably a little tight for her when she was lying down," he said, adding that it's impossible to know whether a larger crate would have prevented the death.
For Zoocheck, both zoos and the shipping company are responsible for what has happened.
"I hope that this latest disaster in a string of disasters makes people think about what these places are doing," Mr. Laidlaw said. "Are they really as focused on good things, as they say? I hope people start to question that."