For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time I fed a giraffe.
This requires a backstory. I have, among the many random connections I have made in life, a passing acquaintance with a veterinarian who works at the San Francisco Zoo. At one time in my life, I actually wanted to be a vet, and working as a zoo vet was what I was most especially interested in. I particularly wanted to work with big cats, but honestly, I wasn’t terribly picky. I later learned that being a veterinarian requires math and rather a lot of time in school, and that vet school is highly competitive, so I shelved that dream, since if there’s one thing I do not do well, it is competition.
But I digress. I was telling you about my friend, Zoo Vet. Zoo Vet asked me one day if I would like a behind the scenes tour of the zoo, and I of course said ‘yes.’ Several memories of this particular adventure stick in my head, like feeding the hippos[1. They open up their mouths wider than one would think possible and you hurl fresh vegetables in and you must be careful because sometimes they climb the walls of the enclosure with their teeth. Yes, you read that right.] and enraging the rhino[2. For some reason, the zoo’s rhino really did not like me. Apparently the rhino is usually fairly mellow, but something about me in particular evoked high levels of ire. We didn’t actually go into the rhino enclosure, but we did go around into the back, and the rhino spent the whole time being extremely angry that I was there.] and petting a baby koala[3. This was when I learned that koalas are, in fact, extremely vicious. Zoo Vet held the mother with epic leather gloves along the lines of those you might expect someone to wear for bear wrestling. The baby was, however, very, very soft.].
But it is feeding the giraffes that I remember most of all. Zoo Vet was telling us about the giraffe breeding, and we were discussing the complexities of anesthesia for giraffes, because evidently they are very sensitive, and then we filled little rubber buckets with giraffe chow, and we walked out into the giraffe yard and stood there.
I felt sort of foolish for a moment, standing there with my rubber bucket, and suddenly a huge head loomed in from behind me, and I realised that there were giraffes! Right there! That I had not noticed! The giraffe turned her head to look at me in an inquiring sort of way, and I was, well, awestruck is the only word. I had never been this close to a giraffe in my life. Her face was inches away from mine. She had thick, luscious eyelashes, and little velvety horns, and a nose that looked extremely soft.
(Photo by Flickr user law_keven, Creative Commons License.)
We gazed into each others’ eyes for a moment, and Zoo Vet said: ‘You know, you can pet her if you want.’
And I did, and her nose was so very soft and velvety. It was like nothing I have felt before or since. It is the feeling that you conjure up in your mind when people use words like ‘soft as a baby’s bottom.’ It was so very delightful, and she waggled her lips against my fingers and they were so very warm and also a little bit rubbery and she whiffled against my palm and it was warm and humid and it tickled, just a little bit.
She looked up at me expectantly, and Zoo Vet explained that she wanted a treat, and I could hold the bucket up for her, or see if she would take food from my hand. I put a treat in my hand, and she stuck out her long, purple tongue and wrapped it around the treat and then thoughtfully brought it back to her mouth and chewed, and then swallowed and looked at me again.
I was entranced. I hung out with the giraffe for at least an hour.
I thought that it was sad that she was living in a zoo, instead of being allowed to do giraffe-like things somewhere out in the wild, that she spent much of her day being gawked at by people. And I also felt very lucky and special for being able to touch her, to put ‘giraffe’ into my muscle and sense memory, to turn the giraffe from an abstract concept into a real, living thing. Many of us have seen pictures of giraffes or seen them in zoos, and some of us have seen them in the wild, but fewer of us have fed a giraffe treats while touching her oh so very soft horns and watching her ears flick around as we talk to her. Fewer of us have traced those little giraffe markings, have stood next to a giraffe and smelled that dusky haysweet scent that is like horse but not, have been startled by the sudden appearance of a head zooming in from above to investigate the situation on the ground.
Giraffes in general are, for the most part, deemed pretty low risk in terms of endangerment. However, there are some unique subspecies that are in danger of being lost. Ever since I interacted with the giraffe at the San Francisco Zoo, giraffe conservation has had a more personal meaning for me. The time I fed a giraffe changed my life, because, really, how can you look into those serious eyes with their framing of luxurious lashes that any film star would be jealous of and not think that this is one of the most amazing animals in the world?