Zoo Tales: Giraffe Feeding Station Opens
For the first time, visitors to the North Carolina Zoo can now have animals literally eating out of their hands -- well, the giraffes, at least.
Opened in June, the Acacia Station allows visitors to offer healthy treats to giraffes from a raised deck near the giraffe's upper overlook.
The giraffes, the world's tallest land mammals, will raise their heads over a safety railing to take food held out by visitors. A ramp will allow the younger, shorter adolescent giraffes to feed as well.
"The zoo decided to develop a giraffe feeding experience to provide guests with a positive and intimate experience with wildlife," said Terry Webb, curator of mammals at the zoo. "The giraffes' faces will be within inches of the guests."
This up-close and personal experience will allow visitors an exciting educational, opportunity to view and interact with the giraffes.
Because the feeding platform extends out into the mixed-species Forest Edge habitat, visitors now will also be afforded a unique vantage point to view the zebra, ostrich and bongo antelope that live alongside the giraffes.
Visitors who haven't seen the park's giraffe exhibit recently will not only be able to experience the feeding station, but also to see almost a completely new group of giraffes -- a noticeably younger group.
A 32-year-old female, the only adult, has been joined by four juveniles that are all less than a year-and-a-half old -- two older juveniles that arrived in September 2008 and two younger juveniles that arrived in March 2009.
African reticulated giraffes, like those at the zoo, are actually one of Earth's most superbly adapted species for feeding on the high foliage well beyond the reach of other animals in their African environment.
Averaging about 15 to 17 feet tall and 1,700 to 4,200 pounds in weight, male giraffes aren't just the tallest land mammals, but also are among the heaviest.
Even though giraffes have the longest necks of any mammals, they have only seven neck bones (cervical vertebrae), the same as most other mammals, including humans. But in the giraffe, each is greatly elongated.
Unusually elastic blood vessels with a series of valves help offset any sudden buildup of blood and prevent fainting when a giraffe raises and lowers its head or swings it quickly.
Other special adaptations include the ability to run at speeds as fast as 35 miles per hour and an ability to go weeks without water.
In their arid environment, they often get water from the morning dew and the water content of the food they eat. When they do find water, they can drink as much as 10 gallons at a time.
Also, a muscular, prehensile tongue (which can extend as much as 18 inches); a thick, gluey saliva; and a special upper palate enable them to process thorny morsels.
In its natural African habitat, an adult giraffe has no predators -- except man -- but newborns can fall prey to big cats, hyenas and wild dogs.
Calves are born in special calving grounds from a standing female, so they can fall as much as 6 feet to the ground when first coming out of their mother. Birth weight is about 100 to 150 pounds and height is about 6 feet.
Although wobbly, calves can stand in about five minutes after birth and begin to feed about 20 minutes later.
Like some cultures today, ancient peoples in Africa revered the giraffe.
When it was seen for the first time by outsiders exploring Africa, the giraffe so excited their curiosity that it was sometimes sent as a diplomatic gift to other countries.
An early record tells of one being sent from Kenya to China in 1415. The animal was thought at one time to be a cross between a camel and a leopard. The mistake was immortalized by the giraffe's scientific name: Giraffa camelopardalis.
Unlike most other ruminants (cud-chewing animals), giraffes are born with horns -- actually knobs covered with skin and hair. At birth, in both sexes, the knobs lie flat against the skull but become upright after about a week.
All five of the park's giraffes can be seen daily, weather permitting, at the Forest Edge exhibit in the Africa Region.
Tom Gillespie works for the zoo's public affairs office.
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