My baby was killed in a giraffe attack which left me paralyzed while protecting the children from attacking animals – it still haunts me
A mother whose young daughter was tragically killed in a giraffe attack as she desperately tried to protect her children from the attacking beast has spoken for the first time.
Nicole Panos, 25, was paralyzed from the waist down while trying to save toddler Kaia and her four-year-old son Kayden from the animal after it attacked them at Kuleni Game Park, where they lived, in South Africa in October last year.
Her son suffered fractured skulls but escaped with his life after curling into a ball in the sand to escape the giraffe – which the family believe was protecting a calf.
Tragically, year-old Kaia, who was holding Nicole in her arms, died from complications from a traumatic head injury.
Seven months after the attack, the heartbroken mother paid tribute to her daughter and told The Sun that the horrific events that unfolded still haunt her every day.
Fighting back tears, Nicole said: “My world completely collapsed when Kaia died.
“On one level, I feel betrayed and confused by our safe space; We didn’t act threateningly towards the giraffe.
“But as a mother, I understand the instinct to protect the children.
“My last thought before she charged us was, ‘Where’s her baby?’ but she took mine.”
Nicole and her husband Jason live with their children on site at the family business – a luxury wildlife park popular with families from all over the world to stay in lodges on site.
She worked in the family’s nature training business as a marine facilitator, student mentor and was a prospective birth attendant and lived a short walk from her family.
Nicole was due to meet a student that afternoon and had arranged for the children to stay with their grandparents for a few hours.
She said: “It was just one of those chilled mornings, we all played together and then they slept at lunchtime. I lay with the children.”
“We left our home to walk the short distance to my parents’ house. We walked through the thickets of bushes and then across a sandy clearing where children used to like to play.
“I saw a male and a female giraffe in the distance; I knew she had recently had a calf, but I couldn’t see it on her.
“She was watching us but she’s quite curious so it wasn’t out of character and we weren’t anywhere near her. I saw her turn and walk in the opposite direction. I remember finding it odd that the calf wasn’t there.
“I carried Kaia in my arms, Kayden walked in front of me.
“Suddenly I heard that noise behind us and turned around – and saw her coming towards us.”
Nicole describes the terrifying moment when the giraffe attacked the family, even though she knew it would be impossible to escape from the angry animal.
She said: “She had her head down, she was coming straight at us and running very fast.
“I’ve always been taught to stand my ground when an animal comes at you and tries to take control of the situation.
“But she attacked my children, they couldn’t fight back. I had Kaia in my arms and she couldn’t run away. My instinct to protect my children took over and I yelled at Kayden to run.
“I felt a hit on my back and I lost consciousness. I don’t remember being kicked by her.
“I had Kaia in my arms. I woke up and heard Kayden scream. I tried to keep my body on Kaia to protect her.
“The giraffe was moving toward Kayden.”
The mother watched helplessly as the giraffe walked towards her four-year-old son, who was curled up in the sand for protection.
She added, “His body looked so small – I really wanted to get to him but I couldn’t move.”
“The giraffe came back to me and I passed out. When I woke up, my mother was sitting next to me, holding Kaia.
“I saw Kaia’s chest heaving, I heard Kayden scream, I remember thinking, ‘They’re both alive,’ and I passed out again.”
Nicole later learned that her brother heard her cries for help and shot a gun in the sand to scare the giraffe away.
Paramedics and family members rushed both children to urgent medical attention, but Nicole’s spinal injuries meant she had to wait four hours before a helicopter could take her to the hospital.
Nicole’s cousin took Kayden to the hospital, and her father rushed to meet Kaia and her aunt at the local doctor, where she tragically breathed her last while her grandfather held her in his arms.
The mother-of-two said her loved ones found it difficult to break the soul-shattering news of Kaia’s death to her.
Nicole said, “I kept asking for updates about the kids and everyone kept telling me Kayden was fine.”
“I was flown to the hospital in Durban and my parents drove to pick me up there.
“I asked her, ‘What about Kaia?’ and they said they would tell me as soon as they knew anything when i got out of surgery but in that moment i just knew she was gone.
“I asked her to tell me the truth and we all broke down.
“From then on I was in survival mode and probably will be for the rest of my life.”
Not only Nicole and Jason struggled to cope with Kaia’s death, her older brother was also hit hard by the tragic events.
Nicole said: “Telling Kayden about this was almost as devastating as the moment I found out. It hit him so hard. The two were so close.”
“They never fought, they loved each other. Kaia mimicked everything Kayden did and he would walk up to her every morning and greet her with that big hug.
“We encourage him to keep talking about her. We all talk about her a lot.
“We remember the dance parties we threw in the kitchen and the joy she had feeding the guinea fowl – which she called Gluckglucks – with her grandpa.”
Nicole spent 23 days in the hospital, including 16 days in intensive care, and has months of rehab ahead of her. In addition to being paralyzed, she suffered multiple broken ribs and damage to her internal organs.
Her husband Jason was working in the United States at the time of the accident. The family had hoped that studying abroad for six months would provide Jason with enough financial resources to allow them both to spend more time with the family.
Nicole said: “We felt like we were about to do something wonderful for our family. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
“We have decided to rename the forest in the park to Kaia’s Forest. It didn’t feel right to give her a tombstone, we wanted a living memorial to her.
“She should be remembered for who she was in life.
“Although she was only on this earth for 15 months, she has enriched the lives of so many and we believe that what she brought to this world needs to be seen and celebrated.”
The family is now trying to rebuild their lives – and making plans to ensure Kaia is not forgotten.
Nicole added: “She was the most wonderful, fun and beautiful soul who loved everything and everyone. She loved life.
“She felt like sunshine and still feels like that. She radiated happiness.
“I am overwhelmed to have had the privilege of being her mother and comforted in knowing that I get to share every single day of her short time on this planet.
“I’m trying to live like Kaia did, full of love, but some days it’s hard for me.
“I understand, but I don’t know if I can ever make peace with what happened.”
There are days when I feel like the pain is so severe that I can barely get through the day. Kayden and Kaia’s memory keep me going.
The family is fundraiser to support Nicole and Kayden’s recovery.