After a five-year absence, giraffes are back at the San Antonio Zoo. Visitors will find three giraffes in the zoo’s Savanna exhibit slated to open to the public on Friday. The exhibit, part of the zoo’s Africa Live! expansion, will feature a more open and natural living environment for the animals.
“I’m very happy to tell you that giraffes are back in San Antonio,” said Tim Morrow, executive director and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo, during a press conference on Thursday.
Zoo officials hope the new additions will enhance educational offerings for the San Antonio community. One former zoo worker said the most commonly asked question he heard while working there was, “Do you have any giraffes?”
The Savanna exhibit, located next to Lucky the Elephant, the sole pachyderm in the elephant exhibit, offers the giraffes nearly one acre of land to eat, drink and explore. Eventually, the exhibit will expand to include birds, antelope,and other animals that would normally share a habitat in Africa.
“It will look like you’re looking out at a real African savanna, which is kind of where zoos are evolving to now, versus the old ‘see an animal, move onto the next thing,’” Morrow said. “We’re moving to bigger more natural spaces that are more enriching for the animals, and better spaces for the guests.”
The giraffes – two young males and their father – were acquired from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville earlier this year. The family stayed at zoo facilities in Boerne before arriving in San Antonio last week. The father and son trio are the first giraffes to reside at the San Antonio Zoo since Daisy the giraffe died of old age in 2010.
While giraffes are increasingly scarce in the wild, the captive population is thriving. An international controversy was ignited last year when a Copenhagen Zoo killed a young surplus giraffe and fed it to the zoo’s lions, saying they were unable to find a new home for the giraffe.
The San Antonio Zoo has been the focus of unwanted attention over the years for its elephant management policies, especially its decision to keep 55-year-old Lucky the Elephant living in solitary confinement while rejecting an invitation to move Lucky to join other aging elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Lucky’s fate drew international attention and led zoo officials to launch their own website defending the zoo’s custodial care of Lucky, www.welovelucky.com.
Zoo officials on Thursday were happy to once again meet visitor expectations to see and experience giraffes.
“We know a lot of people have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Morrow said of the giraffes’ arrival. Guido Construction, which helped build the exhibit, and the Porter Loring family are expected to announce names for the giraffes soon.
The exhibit deck will put visitors eye-to-eye with the giraffes. Once the giraffes are comfortable in their new home, the Giraffe Feeding Experience area will open, allowing visitors to hand feed lettuce to the giraffes for $5. The feedings are expected to fit the animal’s needs, not visitors.
“We’re not really sure what that will look like,” Morrow added. “But it really depends on the giraffes.”
Less than 5,000 reticulated giraffes, also known as Somali, are living the wild, and only 80,000 giraffes are left in the world.
The San Antonio Zoo will partner with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to combat those shrinking population numbers by hiring African farmers to monitor wild giraffe populations. Visitors can donate their old handheld GPS units and binoculars to the zoo, which will then be shipped to help the program in Africa.
“As a nonprofit organization, it’s important for us to continue to add interactive experiences that will help generate larger audiences for the zoo,” said Chris Bathie, President of the San Antonio Zoological Society.” Also keep in mind that we’ve got to fascinate these little kids.”
An estimated one million guests visit the San Antonio Zoo each year, and 80,000 of those visitors are children on field trips. Officials expect the giraffe exhibit’s public opening this week will attract thousands of families.
Zoo staff members lined the fence of the exhibit with food to attract the animals and make them feel more comfortable. The giraffes shied away from the cameras during the media preview on Thursday, but zoo officials are confident they would adjust to their new home in the coming weeks.
“Everything we’re doing is to help the animals,” Morrow added. “Zoos are where people can make those connections between the animals and conservation here. You care about the animals when you see them up close.”
Click here to learn more upcoming San Antonio Zoo events.
*Top image: Three giraffes peer outside their newly renovated feed house as they get acquainted with their new surroundings. Photo by Scott Ball.