Animal Moments

Gee! Is for Giraffe

April 13, 2007

Even though I know giraffes are tall, I am struck anew every time I see a giraffe close up. A tall male can exceed 18 feet. That’s more than three of me stacked up. A good deal of the height is in the glorious neck (which--as in most mammals--has the standard seven cervical vertebrae—they’re just greatly elongated).

But the giraffe’s legs are long, too, especially the forelegs, which can easily exceed six feet. One of the first things to observe about the giraffe is that his back slopes sharply from high (as in way over my head) shoulders down over much shorter rear legs. That’s one of the reasons practically nobody ever succeeded in saddling and riding a giraffe. The other is that practically no giraffe ever allowed a human to saddle and ride it.

The giraffe is not just tall but BIG. A mature adult male can weigh over two tons. A female can weigh over one ton. And most of that weight is perched on top of those long, knobby-kneed legs. Yet the giraffe moves with a kind of daintiness. The legs are too long to allow the normal quadrupedal gait (right foreleg moves forward with left hindleg, etc.). Instead the giraffe walks by moving the legs of each side forward together: left legs forward; right legs forward; etc. But the giraffe can also gallop, moving the forelegs and hindlegs together--up to speeds of 35 miles per hour.

Even when the giraffe has to spread her forelegs and bend her knees to reach the water with her lips for a drink, there is a delicacy and gingerliness of movement I admire.

I am also amused by the appearance and behavior of the giraffe’s sticky, snaky, blue-black tongue. I felt the force of those tongues in the one photo, taken on “safari” at the San Diego Wild Animal Park ( The giraffes would happily eat from our hands. But don’t try to touch them on the face or neck. They are very skittish.

Don’t be fooled by the giraffe’s apparent mildness. Giraffe mamas are very protective. Their huge heavy hoof can wield a deadly kick, useful when your primary predator is a lion.

When a baby giraffe is born, it is just the right height to reach its mother’s teats, located between the front legs about six feet from the ground.

There are eight or nine subspecies of Giraffa camelopardalis. Most commonly seen in captivity are the subspecies Reticulated, Masai, and Rothschild. The visible differences have to do with the coloration, shape, and size of the giraffe’s patches. But every individual giraffe within a subspecies also has a distinct and unique patchwork. The animal retains the patchwork all its life, and even if the colors change with age or other circumstances, the pattern will never change.

Oh, just one more thing: Did you know, it is impossible to get angry with a giraffe? Try it sometime. You’ll see.