03/01/2012 11:36 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Calgary Zoo bids good-bye to beloved 22-year-old giraffe Mardi

CALGARY - Old age and declining health have forced the Calgary Zoo to say good-bye to one of its most-loved animals and the grande dame of its African Savannah exhibit.

A leggy lady named Mardi, a 22-year-old reticulated giraffe, had to be euthanized Thursday because of age-related degenerative arthritis.

Mardi had the joint-crippling condition in her ankles and for some time had been getting extra TLC from her vets and keepers, zoo spokeswoman Laurie Skene said. The long-necked animal had regularly received medicine and acupuncture to relieve discomfort, reduce swelling and diminish inflammation.

"For giraffes that's kind of tough when it's hitting in the ankles," said Skene. "It becomes an issue for them. They can't obviously do without being able to stand up and she was just having more struggles all the time."

Everyone knew Mardi's time had come when it became evident her pain-control medication was no longer working as well. There were also concerns her ankles would no longer hold her up and she could fall and break a leg.

So Mardi was showered with affection and treats.

"She liked apples and carrots and potato chips," said Skene. "They just said, you know, normally we wouldn't give her that stuff so much, but she just got to have whatever she wanted in the last few days."

Mardi got her name when she was born during Mardi Gras at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in 1990. She came to Calgary the following year. She would become a mother three times, giving birth to one male and two females.

"It is always very said to say good-bye to an old friend and Mardi was just that to so many of us here at the zoo," Mona Keith, lead zookeeper in the African Savannah exhibit, said in a release.

Skene said the gentle giraffe took part in many educational programs. She would delight her audiences by batting her lengthy lashes and sticking out her very long tongue.

"She was just a great animal to be an ambassador to help generate people caring about some of these remote areas of the world, where animals are in serious jeopardy and struggling more and more against habitat loss and all kinds of other issues."

The average life expectancy of a giraffe is 20 to 25 years.

Mardi was well-suited to interact with the public because of her calm disposition, Skene said.

"Most giraffes are very, very skittish — that's just in their nature —and Mardi was quite the gentle lady. She was a very sweet girl."

Seventeen giraffes have been born at the Calgary Zoo under its species survival plan. The zoo is part of a network of animal centres around the world that work to preserve a diverse gene pool for threatened species.

There's one giraffe left in Calgary, an 18-year-old female, and it's hoped a companion can be found to join her as soon as possible.

There are nine subspecies of giraffes roaming central and southern Africa on their spindly, stilt-like legs. Reticulated giraffes are mostly found in Somalia, northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia and are the ones most commonly seen in zoos.

Giraffes are the world's tallest animal and can stand between five and six metres high — about two storeys. The average weight for males is 1,200 kilograms and 830 kilograms for females.

— By Sylvia Strojek in Edmonton