In Honor of World Giraffe Day: How to Shave a Giraffe's Feet

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Giraffe, right, tickbird, on its back, and two zebras
Giraffe, right, tickbird, on its back, and two zebrasCredit: Gil Eliyahu
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The giraffe has five horns and for all that "gentle giant" image, they can be pretty belligerent with one another, Haaretz notes on the occasion of World Giraffe Day. Most of their aggression is male-on-male and fortunately, giraffes fight mainly by waving their necks threateningly at one another, leaving their vicious kicks for lurking predators. With their keepers at the zoo, they're elongated angels, claims Adam Levy from the Ramat Gan Safari Park. "For all their size, by nature they are sociable and gentle," he told Haaretz "Though each has its own personality," he qualifies.

Denise's daughters at the Ramat Gan Safari. Credit: TIBOR JAGER

World Giraffe Day takes place on June 21, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation ruled, to coincide with the longest day of the year. Yes, it's because the giraffe has the longest neck, legs and so on.

Your given giraffe is likely to be around 4.5 to 5 meters tall, almost half of which is neck.

Why do they have long necks, anyway? The latest wrinkle in giraffe evolution theory is that extra-long necks evolved for the sake of sexual exhibition, sort of like the peacock's tail. The other prevailing theory is that it evolved so they could reach tender, nutritious treetop leaves that other quadruped herbivores can't reach (the "competing browsers" hypothesis). The sexual-selection theory was created for extinct sauropods that had necks as long as a bus, but the principles suit the giraffe as well.

The truth of course is that we don’t know whether the necks extended for sex or food. Or both. An adaptation can be convenient for more than one use.

On the downside for the sexual showoff theory, female giraffes have long necks too. Meanwhile, the experts are still fighting over whether or not the male giraffe has a longer (and/or stronger) neck than the female, which could be indicative.

Denisa the giraffe at the Ramat Gan Safari.Credit: TIBOR JAGER

So, giving up on closure, here are some other facts about the world's presently tallest animal in honor of World Giraffe appreciation.

Million years of evolution

 The giraffe has a turbocharged heart and extremely high blood pressure compared with other mammals, otherwise it would faint: blood wouldn't reach its little five-horned head at the end of that two-meter neck. It didn't always. Ancestral giraffes looked more like antelopes and its closest living cousin, the okapi, has an unremarkable neck.

Paleontological studies indicate that the giraffe neck began to elongate about six million years ago. But the true extension only happened during the last million years.

Given that many paleontological explanations seem to involve tens of millions of years, a mere million may not sound like much, but consider that the earliest known fossil of Homo sapiens is just under 300,000 years old. A million years ago our ancestors didn't only have short necks: they were, apparently, apes.

Which brings us to the giraffe's blood vessels. They are necessarily much more robust than the mammalian norm, meaning their walls are thicker, in order to handle the higher blood pressure. Otherwise every time the beast lowered its head to drink, it would faint.

For all their fairy-like aspect with those long thin legs and great dewy eyes, further testimony to the fundamental toughness of the giraffe is that the females give birth standing up. Put otherwise, the first thing the baby giraffe knows on this planet is the feeling of being dropped 1.5 meters onto the ground.

Mother giraffe licks baby: note purple tongue and how the horns on the newborn's little head are just starting to take shape. Credit: Andreas Meier, Reuters

Those five horns, by the way, are what you think of as "bumps" on its head, and happily for the female giraffe, they are completely flat in newborns, says Sagit Horowitz of the Ramat Gan Safari Park. But the moment the baby giraffe is dropped, literally, those horns start to stiffen.

Baby giraffe, 3 weeks old, with her mother at the Jerusalem Biblical ZooCredit: Gil Cohen Magen

Tolerance training for giraffes

Which brings us to the giraffe's vocalizations. They hum, just not very often and not very loud, observes Horowitz.

She and the Safari staff have had ample opportunity to observe giraffes humming. The Safari presently has seven of the animals: in a paddock, four females (Denise, Daniella, Dikla, Diana) and the male Dedi Daddon. Outside in the "open African savannah" part of the Safari park, which is fenced off from Israel's highways by high walls, there are two more, Shelly and Anton. 

"Dikla is the most ingratiating of the herd," observes their devoted keeper Levy, who knows a thing or two about their psychology. "Diana is the most curious." The giraffes do not vocalize to their keepers but he for one feels they communicate something with their great velvet eyes: Denisa makes him feel he's achieved something good that day, he says. "Caring for them is a great privilege," he told Haaretz.

At a more technical level: "We also have one of the oldest giraffes in the world," Horowitz says. "Denisa, who's already 28-and-a-half years old. Literature usually caps giraffe life-span at 28 years in captivity. She arrived at just two years of age, from Holland, and has had 11 babies, which is considered extraordinary. She's very special and gentle."

From Holland? Indeed; zoos regularly exchange animals, in part to prevent inbreeding.

That "gentle" bit is convenient, because one thing the Safari routinely does is give its giraffes a pedicure.

Normally a giraffe would spend its time ambling around the savannah eating grasses and leaves and its hooves would wear down naturally. Unable to do much at the zoo other than to ignore the visitors fruitlessly clamoring for its attention, the giraffes' hooves become overgrown, which if untreated, can lame them.

Training a giraffe to tolerate pedicureCredit: Ramat Gan Safari, YouTube

Thus the Safari developed its daily routine of training its giraffes to tolerate being approached in general and having their feet touched (video provided). The alternative would be to sedate them every time their hooves needed trimming, which would be hugely onerous for everybody involved.

"Training them took years," Horowitz says, which one can understand especially when one realizes that their hooves are trimmed using noisy machinery.  Training involves accustoming them to the presence of the machines and tapping ungently on their hooves. Nobody likes that but they can learn to tolerate it, enabling the Safari carers to do the job without anesthetic.

As for feeding, the Safari eschews the poisonous plants that giraffes uniquely evolved to eat. In fact studies have shown that giraffe-y uniqueness is a function of around 70 genes, no more. The giraffe typically eats leaves that it nabs with its 45-centimeter long purple prehensile tongue – which is conveniently covered in hardened papillae (like your taste buds, if they were hard and purple). That coupled with the giraffe's thick saliva helps it eat thorny branches without suffering.

Finally, there isn't one giraffe, there are nine. That is, nine subspecies. They differ in the shape and color of their markings.

All are endangered and some are practically extinct, hence the importance of World Giraffe Day, to bring attention to their plight. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains lists of endangered animals, changed the status of the most common giraffe to Vulnerable in 2016, mainly because of loss of habitat and poaching – which isn't even to alleviate hunger. Giraffe isn't considered particularly tasty. They're killed for their pelts, which are sold to tourists, and to make fly-whisks out of their tails.

Why did giraffes evolve their long necks? To reach high leaves, or to seduce? The jury is out.Credit: KAREL PRINSLOO / AP