Reticulated splendor

Hello there! After way too many weeks, I’m back– and so are the giraffes, after several years away at their year-round home in Madison, Wis.

Sweta and Zawadi

That’s Sweta, at left, and Zawadi avidly accepting box elder leaves from two zookeepers Thursday morning. These two reticulated giraffes are 12- and 11-year-old brothers, respectively. (There are about nine  giraffe subspecies; “reticulated” refers to the white netlike stripe pattern.) Sweta and Zawadi are just part of our summer Africa exhibit, but they’re the part on which I’ve been fixated this month — especially since I learned that an Ohio zoo is set to acquire them, and this will be their last occasional summer in Minnesota.

Zawadi giraffe tongue

So until Labor Day, I will treasure my half-hour shifts at the rope line, helping visitors exit the feeding station and watching their astonishment at the length and color of a giraffe’s tongue flicking toward the crackers available for giraffe-feeding purchase. These tongues are a foot and a half long, roughly textured and flexible enough to strip leaves from branches. As a keeper pointed out last week, the tongues are dark to avoid sunburn, since in Africa, the giraffes spend most of their day browsing, their tongues outstretched and exposed to the light. In Africa, they browse acacia trees, which are full of ants. Thanks to extra-thick eyelashes and nostrils that close, giraffes can deal with this, though the ants do deter them from stripping a tree entirely bare. Their faces are extra-sensitive, though — zoo guests are counseled not to touch them, because a giraffe’s sudden head-swing can be overly dramatic and a giraffe’s sudden retreat would be disappointing.

Zawadi with baby

Still, Sweta and Zawadi seem to like people — Zawadi, the giraffe in both photos above, alternates between swooping his six- or seven-foot-long neck down to sniff a human feeder and lifting it high to peer at the more distant crowd. Quite a few toddlers recoiled in shock from the massive tongue, dropping their crackers, but this baby seemed unfazed.

giraffe luringI’ve been back volunteering — and stopping by the giraffe station — for the past three weeks, but like my return to blogging, the giraffes’ return to the feeding station just seemed to take awhile. Twice a day — usually around 10 and 2 –staffers arrive with branches, wait for Sweta and Zawadi to stroll over, and feed them (and help visitors who buy crackers feed them) until the giraffes get full or otherwise lose interest and stroll away again. Three weeks ago, I spent nearly half an hour watching the giraffes refuse to be lured until a couple of keepers took their branches down into the exhibit and gradually got some traction that way. The giraffes’ likely excuse was the month of torrential rain that made them more comfortable in or near their holding barn; I really have no such excuse. But now that we’re all finally back, browsing and blogging — and I know that their time with the zoo, unlike mine, has a definite end date — I appreciate them all the more.