My New Friend, the Giraffe

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest Journals.

Wow, what an exciting week! Only three days into the program, and I’m already learning so much! Ms. Rachelle Marcon, an Educator Guide at the San Diego Zoo, took us around the Zoo for a few peeks behind the scenes. Among the owls and rhinos and snakes (oh, my!), there were several stops where we interacted with animals. One of these stops was the koala bedrooms.

Stepping inside one of the empty rooms, we could see the koalas at a close range. One of the koalas was only about two feet away from us! When it yawned, we could see every tooth in its mouth! I never would have guessed that they actually have four rodent-like front teeth, two on top and two on the bottom, and flatter teeth in the back for grinding up eucalyptus leaves. From Ms. Marcon, we learned that the Zoo sometimes loans out the koalas to other zoos for various reasons, including breeding programs, or education. When this occurs, the Zoo sends a package of educational materials called a Koala Pouch with the koalas. This way, the zoo receiving the koalas is well informed of their needs and has the opportunity to teach the community about these amazing animals, while promoting conservation of the species.

We also stopped off at the Masai giraffes. We went around to the back of the enclosure, picking up a few branches along the way. One giraffe was already waiting for us at the fence. Stretching his long neck over the bars and down to our eye level, he stuck out his tongue, waiting to be fed. When it was my turn to hold up the branch for him, I asked Ms. Marcon how long his tongue was. She told me that they can reach 16 inches! Eventually, some of the other giraffes walked over to the fence too, and we were able to feed them. Some would just rip the branch, leaves, bark, and all, but he would daintily pick every leaf off with his tongue. This bluish-purple, 16-inch long appendage wormed its way around the leaves, and grasping them firmly, pulled them off the branch as the eye as large as a tennis ball watched everything going by. These majestic animals inspired a sense of being very small in me, and the sheer height caused my neck to be stiff after watching them for so long!

The giraffes’ enclosure was well designed, and I found myself wondering what it took to create it. I asked Ms. Marcon about the process involved, and I learned that it can take up to ten years from designing to finishing the exhibit. Architects, keepers, and curators meet up many times to discuss the needs and preferences of the animal, as well as being beautiful to visitors. Attractiveness of the exhibit is important because the message of conservation, the very goal of the San Diego Zoo, will be more likely to sink in if it is memorable to the visitor. If the animal is new to the Zoo, research is conducted in the actual habitat of the animal to determine the habitat’s specific requirements. I had no idea it took so long to design just one part of the Zoo! Elephant Mesa, the exhibit scheduled for completion in 2009, is to be much larger than the current elephant enclosure. It’s hard to imagine how much effort goes into planning, designing, and constructing such a large project.

Wendy, Conservation Team