Safari Park Longnecks

Giraffes at the Park enjoy the best of both worlds: freedom to roam and caring keepers

BY Karyl Carmignani

Photography by Ken Bohn

Giraffe1Number of
vertebrae in
that long neck

She scans the butter-colored hillside awash in tiny chamomile blooms. “There it is!” says Amanda Lussier, Safari Park keeper. Peeking up is a kitten-sized newborn Grant’s gazelle; its mother is feeding several yards away and keeping a keen eye on us. A crash of white rhinos mill about while a herd of buffalo recline in the shade. Surveying this Eden-like setting is a tower of 16 giraffes of varying ages and heights. Amanda explains that the group ebbs and flows with births and shipments. “These giraffes are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), so specialists convene to make the best decisions for the giraffe’s genetic diversity and demographic stability.” These days, the survival plan for giraffes is more urgent than ever.

T14_0178_058

Giraffe3How many feet tall a giraffe is at
birth (usually)

Gentle Giants

The vast South African plains exhibit is home to six Masai giraffes, while the East African exhibit is home to reticulated and Rothschild’s giraffes. With one exception. “Baridi, the smallest guy out here, had a severe infection after he was born,” said Amanda. He had to spend a full month at the Paul Harter Veterinary Medical Center at the Park, where he received IV fluids and around-the-clock care until he was able to move around on his own.

TALL ORDER Congo the giraffe is enjoying some special treats. Keepers go to great lengths to nurture trusting relationships with the animals, which comes in handy if they need medical attention.

TALL ORDER
Congo the giraffe is enjoying some special treats. Keepers go to great lengths to nurture trusting relationships with the animals, which comes in handy if they need medical attention.

When he returned, keepers kept him in the boma where he could be bottle-fed. “We wanted him to feel relaxed around our trucks, the caravans, and anything else that might occur on exhibit,” said Amanda. So keepers parked the truck inside the boma, fed him from it, started it up, stood on the roof—all to get him used to “novel” stimuli. “We didn’t know for sure if, once he was released out there, we could get him to come to us for his bottles.”

BOTTLE BABY Baridi was bottle fed and received medication until he was strong enough to join the group. After joining the group he still needed supplemental bottles, and he would dash over to the truck, slurp down his milk, and run back to his giraffe friends.

BOTTLE BABY
Baridi was bottle fed and received medication until he was strong enough to join the group. After joining the group he still needed supplemental bottles, and he would dash over to the truck, slurp down his milk, and run back to his giraffe friends.

Giraffe4How many feet tall a female giraffe can grow

Giraffe5How many feet tall a male giraffe can grow

Giraffe youngsters sometimes form a crèche, or nursery group, watched over by one or two adults. “Within the crèche they will ‘buddy up’ with another calf, so we let Baridi, a Masai giraffe, join the larger group of reticulated and Rothschild’s, because there were four youngsters—Congo, Siri, Yamikani, and Kafele—that he could hang out with,” Amanda said. Though Congo was already weaned, he became Baridi’s buddy. “When we go out in the field to give him his bottle, he breaks away from his friends and runs over to us. He runs right back out to them when he’s finished,” she said.

The trust and affection between keeper and giraffe is palpable. After three years of working with them, Amanda knows their individual personalities, idiosyncrasies, choice of companions, and favorite foods. Twenty-two-year-old Chuku crunches down apples with great flourish, fortified with medicine for her aging joints. Her buddy Kizuwanda is not so keen on the fruit, but rather than insult by turning up her pretty nose at it, she gently takes it in her mouth, ducks away from the truck window, and drops it on the roof.

T14_0199_018

Giraffe6Number of
subspecies
of giraffe

Managing Giraffe Health

Animal rapport is priceless when a health issue crops up. Amanda shared that several months ago, Leroy fractured his ilium, a non-weight-bearing bone in the hip. Keepers and veterinarians were able to usher him into a chute, shave the area on his flank, take ultrasound images of the injury, and treat it, without having to anesthetize him. After six weeks of rest, the mighty giraffe was as good as new! “The relationships we have with the animals make their healthcare procedures much easier and less stressful for all concerned,” added Amanda. Leroy sauntered over to the truck, eager and friendly. Amanda handed him a huge carrot that he sniffed carefully and refused. “He wants everything and nothing,” Amanda said with a laugh.

TOWER OF POWER A group of giraffes is called a tower. Though they do not exhibit obvious hierarchical behavior, they do have rich, complex social lives.

TOWER OF POWER
A group of giraffes is called a tower. Though they do not exhibit obvious hierarchical behavior, they do have rich, complex social lives.

Sometimes called the watchtowers of the savanna, giraffes in the wild now need someone to watch over them. Amanda went to Kenya with other San Diego Zoo Global staff to lend animal care expertise and exchange ideas with local people caring for neonates. “Working at the Safari Park is a unique opportunity to get involved with conservation projects,” she said. “It’s important for keepers, conservationists, and scientists to work with local communities to save the giraffe. That kind of collaboration is what will make this successful.” That’s what it will take to change a silent extinction to a quiet recovery.

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