I stretched up on my tiptoes to unlock a steel padlock and slid the pin holding the door shut over to the open position. Towering high above my head was one of my favorite giraffes, Kizuwanda. She was leaning over the boma wall, on alert, probably wondering what I was doing. “Ready?” I yelled to a fellow keeper, whom I couldn’t see but knew was inside the boma watching the giraffe while I unlocked the door. I heard a response and replied, “Okay, here we go!” I took one last look through a peephole and saw Kizuwanda staring at me, from a safe 10 feet (3 meters) away. I moved the pin, and with all my body weight, I pushed the heavy door open and quickly retreated to my truck. Most of our giraffes are pretty calm when keepers are on the ground near them, but Kizuwanda can be a little less trusting and was on high alert today: we were releasing her and her 4-week-old son, Kato, out into the field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to meet the herd for the first time.
I’m aware that I am fortunate enough to have one of the coolest jobs ever, and I get to see so many amazing things every day, but giraffe introductions are up there with one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. Currently, we have a pretty big herd: nine males and seven females in the East Africa exhibit. They are quite social, so they are often found together in a big group, and it’s an amazing sight to see so many giraffes in one exhibit. Historically, we’ve had a successful giraffe breeding program, welcoming over 120 Uganda giraffe calves at the Safari Park!
Once the steel door was propped open, Kizuwanda didn’t waste any time and took off, galloping into the exhibit. I peered around the corner to see a deer-in-the headlights look on the face of a mini-giraffe confused by what he just witnessed. Moments later, instincts kicked in, and he was off, too, in a trot of awkward, gangly limbs, in desperate search of Mom. I got in the truck, maneuvered my way to the main part of the exhibit, and tried to catch up with the herd that was already racing off.
When a new calf joins the herd, it’s really exciting! The herd surrounds the newcomer, sniffs, investigates, and runs around the exhibit all together as if in some sort of victory lap. It’s really pretty amazing. Today was no different. Kato quickly got mixed up in a 17-foot-tall mass of spots, legs, necks, tails, and, of course, dust. They were all quite gentle with him but impatient to get their turn meeting the little one. This went on for about 20 minutes, interspersed with bouts of running, with Kato in the lead, probably just trying to get some space. Up until now, he’s only bonded with Mom and any giraffe heads that have peered over the maternity boma wall. I followed along in the truck until I was satisfied that this was a successful introduction. The giraffes had settled down, and the short burst of excitement was over.
Kizuwanda is back with her herd-mates, and Kato has been welcomed as the herd’s newest member. I feel confident that after this successful introduction, his place in the group will be assured.