If you go
Giraffes at Naples Zoo
When: Starting today, the public will be able to view the giraffes from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily during a preview period
Where: 1590 Goodlette-Frank Road
For information and tickets: 262-5409 or www.napleszoo.com
1590 Goodlette-Frank Road, Naples, FL
NAPLES — The Naples Zoo will unveil its newest residents this morning, but be forewarned.
Giraffes are dangerously charming.
While lions ambush with their awesome physical power, giraffes disarm with a bashful bat of their long eyelashes. They walk slowly and carefully, except for when they break out into a giddy gallop, like children chasing an ice cream truck. And beneath their finely whiskered lips is a tongue so skillful it could probably pick a padlock.
Not that it ever would, naturally.
“It’s an absolutely angelic animal,” explains Gavin Weurth, one of the six Naples zoo employees who work with the five new giraffes.
All of the giraffes are reticulated, which means their fur has patterns of large, box-shaped brown spots. They’re all male, between the ages of one and two years old, and all hail from breeding programs at other United States zoos. They arrived in Naples in late May.
As might be imagined, acquiring them wasn’t as easy as filling out a few forms. The giraffes may be young, but they’re each 10 to 12 feet tall. Eventually, they could tower up to 18 feet tall, weigh as much as 4,000 pounds and live as long as 25 years.
“Just to get them here was a year in the making,” explains David Tetzlaff, the zoo’s executive director.
First, the zoo had to locate the giraffes and make a deposit. The financial investment didn’t stop there, as the animals had to be insured for their trip and also their first year onsite.
Then there was the question of how and when to ship the giraffes. Only six companies in the country own a giraffe-friendly truck, and the zoo needed to make the move at the right time of year, avoiding the chill of winter and heat of summer.
More staff had to be hired to tend to the giraffes; one new part-time and two full-time employees were brought on, including some with prior giraffe experience. Keepers who didn’t have previous knowledge needed to learn how to care for the giraffes, which meant training at other zoos.
And, of course, the zoo had to plan, permit and build the new 20,000-square foot giraffe enclosure. The zoo’s new enclosure is six times larger than what Florida requires for its new-giraffe population, Tetzlaff says.
That extra footage gives the young bulls plenty of space to canter and stroll. Their movements are even and easy; Tetzlaff uses the words “slow motion” to describe it.
“They’re very elegant,” Tetzlaff says.
Another of a giraffe’s most recognizable characteristics is its stretching, twirling tongue, which has evolved to be able to feast on foliage from even the most troublesome of trees, including the thorn-covered acacia.
It’s an intricate, skillful adaptation, Weurth says, and it’s also quite enjoyable to observe. At the zoo, the giraffes eat grain food specially formulated for the species. Alfalfa is offered in a manger mounted high enough that the giraffes don’t have to stoop. Branches cut from around the property are also scattered around the enclosure; giraffes simply grab and go, nibbling a twig as they travel.
Despite their size, they do not eat as much as one might expect, not much more than a horse, Weurth notes.
“They’re an extremely efficient animal,” he says.
The real food fun comes when it’s time to give the giraffes a treat. Carrots, lettuce, sweet potatoes and other kinds of fresh produce are hand-fed to the giraffes.
At some time in the future, the public will also be able to feed them.
But don’t worry. Giraffes sometimes slobber, but this cud-chewing creature doesn’t bite, Weurth explains. While they have some “pretty honest molars” in the back of their mouths, the front part of their mouth is occupied by what he describes as a “wet, neoprene heel.”
“All you really have to do is present some food and hold on,” he says.
In total, each giraffe cost an average of about $20,000. It’s a long-term investment for the zoo’s future, however: The giraffes are the first part of the zoo’s planned $2 million-plus Coastal Africa development effort, which will also include a new lion exhibit, an African village feature and an animal endowment fund.
Back in the present, zoo staff focuses on getting to know their new charges better — just like people, the giraffes have personalities, Wuerth says — and on building trust and confidence and between animals and keepers.
“It has been interesting for the entire staff,” says Kelly Tetzlaff, the zoo’s general curator. “It’s an entirely new thing.”