Giraffes: Encounters With Nature’s Skyscrapers
Napping Porcupines, Etc.
What caught our attention first as we entered the house that summer were the large porcupines who were snoozing, their quills at rest cascading down their necks like mohawk haircuts. Across the aisle from them, petite dama gazelles gently chewed hay beneath their feet in another pen.
As we walked further on, however, what I saw in the back inside the wooden structure was almost impossible for me to comprehend at the time.
A Most Peculiar House
That’s because we were in a most unusual house – namely, the giraffe house at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England.
And what was looming before my eyes only feet away from me was a large group of those splendid, graceful animals. They were strolling peacefully about their paddock having just come from the outside into the house.
Some of them started grazing from ceiling-high hay racks, and I noticed a ‘youngster’ nursing hungrily in the corner, the two little horns on his head looking for all the world like twin chef hats.
In fact, the baby that I saw that day resembled this other young giraffe whose photograph David took at Longleat Safar Park, another wildlife center located in Wiltshire, England.
As you can see, this juvenile has his own pair of twin chef hats too!
As I took in more detail about the herd of giraffes so close to where I stood, I was mesmerized: There at arm’s length was a group of animate, breathing skyscrapers.
I tried to make human sense of their height, particularly as they were inside a structure with heads that nearly reached the very high ceilings.
The Art of Loping
Then by chance I noticed a teenage boy near me who was balancing on the ledge next to the paddock. He was reaching out to the animals, trying to pet them. I decided to follow his lead and so I joined him on the ledge.
Like him, I stretched on tiptoe and tried to get the animals’ attention. Soon one giraffe loped past me. Then another swung near me – close, but no cigar. A third drew near – but then it changed its mind, turned around, and bound with its long, graceful stride towards a towering feeder instead.
In a few moments, however, one of them came over to me. It bent its head way down on its immensely long neck, regarding me quietly with its expressive, dewy soft eyes right in my face.
I leaned forward cautiously to pet its velvety muzzle. Our eyes still united, it calmly accepted the gesture. Then it gently rolled out its very long, prehensile tongue, licked my hand, raised its head – and off it went to join its mates.
I stepped off the ledge, and noticed that David was talking with a couple near by. As he continued chatting, the woman came over to me.
“I noticed that you were petting Jane. We come here a lot, and that’s her name. She’s lovely, isn’t she? She’s our favorite… Don’t you think this giraffe house is wonderful?” she said.
I nodded silently in agreement, still trying to mentally process what I had just experienced.
A Distant Relative
Since our visit to that giraffe house four years ago when we first experienced such close contact with those beautiful animals, spotting giraffes in other wildlife centers has been a special delight for David and me.
So at another zoo not too long after I met Jane, David took a photograph of a thoughtful giraffe gazing out of a window. I subsequently paired a quotation with the shot, and together we created this image for one of our ecards:
Some time after we took that photograph, I thought about Jane and my experience of meeting her. So I decided to find out more about her from Marwell Zoo, and I was told at the time that she was doing well.
Then the zoo employee asked me if I knew that Jane had a regal connection, namely that she was named after Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife.
In fact, as I also learned, Jane Seymour’s brother Sir Henry Seymour owned Marwell Hall in the 16th century – which explains why that beautiful building is housed on the grounds of Marwell Zoo, where it is still in use today for various venues.
As far as King Henry VIII goes, it is also very probable that he visited Marwell. It is also thought that he may well have had a private wedding ceremony at Owslebury Church nearby, or at Marwell Hall itself.
In anticipation of writing this piece, I contacted Marwell Zoo once again earlier this month to see how Jane was doing.
I found out, very sadly enough, that Jane died during labor last year.
“There were problems during the birth, and the calf died. Jane ended up being paralyzed in her back legs, and she had to be euthanized. She was 6 1/2 years old when she died,” Britt Jensen, a keeper at Marwell Zoo’s West Section said.
What’s In A Name
Fortunately, however, Marwell has a wonderful giraffe program and life continues there through the seven giraffes who make it their home now.
In addition, like Jane before them – most of the giraffes are named with great care after British or African royalty or some other cultural aspect.
I learned this through Bill Hall, an animal liaison officer who has worked at the zoo since 1976.
As he and a Marwell receptionist named Karen Small further detailed to me with great cheer and good humor, here’s the current line-up:
Kismet, age 11 (named in Germany which was his home before Marwell, he is the sole adult male of the herd);
Matilda, age 12 (named after Empress Matilda, who was the oldest surviving child of King Henry I);
Isabella, age 7 (named after Princess Isabella, who was King Henry III’s sister);
Makeda, age 4 (named after the Ethiopian name for the Queen of Sheba);
Kwane (just born Saturday, June 6, 2009, also the day commemorating D-Day that occurred during WWII, this newborn’s name means literally ‘born on Saturday’ in Twi, the language spoken in Ghana, West Africa);
Christa, 14 months or so (named after her father Christopher who died in February 2008 and whose last baby she was);
Tiye, age 13 months or so (named after the mother of the Pharoah Tutankhamun, Tiye’s mother was Mary and her sister was none other than Jane).
The reason for the very low number of giraffes at Marwell Zoo at the present time is that the zoo recently moved three young males to Folly Farm in Wales where they joined a bachelor group, Britt Jensen also explained to me.
Kismet is currently the only male on the lot, so to speak. Within the confines of Marwell (that is, not in the wild), the herd functions best with only one dominant male.
So down the road when the newborn Kwane reaches about two-and-a-half years old and his “voice breaks,” as Bill Hall put it, he [Kwane] will have to leave Marwell at that time.
Aside from the wonderfully quirky names that unite these giraffes at Marwell, all of them are also members of the genus ‘giraffa’.
As such, naturally they share certain aspects with one another.
To learn more features and facts about these tallest quadrupds, look out for our upcoming article ‘Giraffes At A Glance’.
AboutMyArea (Portsmouth area)
Guide to Castles of Europe
Courtesy of Marwell Zoo –
Bill Hall, Animal Liaison Officer
Britt Jensen, Keeper, West Section
Karen Small, Receptionist