Giraffe

(This column was first published in the January 25, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    It is an odd experience walking across the Buffalo Zoo grounds between mountains of snow toward a building that houses seven animals native to sub-Saharan Africa. On the way zoo publicist Andy Schwartz and I pass mostly empty cages, their summer occupants now warm in other shelters. Only zebras frolic outside. From a distance they look like moving black stripes etched against the snow.

    Finally we reach our goal and enter the Cecelia Evans Taylor Giraffe House.

    For a few minutes I simply stand, mouth agape. It has been years since I last visited these remarkable animals and I have forgotten the deep impression they make. I find it impossible to categorize them.

    Giraffes are beautiful, their long lines giving them a kind of grace, their lily pad-like patterns of soft brown against tan quite elegant, their soulful eyes adding character. But they are also ugly. How else to describe those narrow bovine faces with their three lumpy horns, those jaws continuously chewing cud in that circular motion common to ruminants, those foot long lolling tongues and those splayed hooves?

    They are dainty, their stilt-like legs and long necks making them appear fragile. But they are massive beasts: adults weigh a ton. And a kick from one of those legs can kill a lion.

    I give up. They are simply -- wonderful. Giraffes remain my favorite animals.

    We're joined by Vicki Hodge and Debbi Sullivan, the keepers responsible for these (and many other) animals, and by Justin Kunick, their intern from Keuka College. Although they have their own pet names for their charges, they identify them now by their public names. The bull, overlooking the others from his own stall, is Hodari, the three cows are Jenny, Tana and Agnes and their respective calves are Alphabet, Ginger and Jumoke. Jumoke is Swahili for "everybody reared me," quite appropriate as this troop is obviously a commune.

    Much to my delight, I am allowed to feed these animals from a bag of maple leaves -- after first removing my tempting hat. For a few minutes I am in hog heaven, but (adeptly mixing metaphors) next to a pile of giant pick-up-sticks. Although seven necks reach from all directions, there is no impatience. If I feed one gi raffe, even a calf, the others simply wait their turn.

    I would like nothing more than to take one these animals home with me. Unfortunately it would fit there about as well as Alice in that Wonderland house.

    My excuse for this visit is a book I have just read -- Zarafa by Michael Allin (published by Walker and Company). Zarafa is Arabic for giraffe, clearly the source of our English word. It is also the name of an individual giraffe calf that was captured south of Khartoum in 1824 and taken to Paris. The 2000 mile trip down the Nile and across the Mediterranean was mostly by boat, but she walked all of the 550 miles from Marseille to Paris. Altogether it was a remarkable 18 month expedition for this first giraffe in France.

    It is a good story, told against an intriguing historical background, but the centerpiece remains this companionable beast. Restrained only by flimsy ropes held by two Arab attendants walking beside her, she was usually content to follow three milk cows marched ahead through the vast crowds of people eager to witness this 12 foot tall "impossible animal."

    Only when some part of her routine was changed did Zarafa balk and refuse to continue, giraffe behavior that was amply confirmed by Hodge and Sullivan. When things returned to normal, she marched on.

    An interesting tale that led me to an exciting experience. -- Gerry Rising