Michael, a 16-foot-tall Masai giraffe, made a new home at the Santa Barbara Zoo last Tuesday as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums cooperative breeding program.
Born in Toronto in August 2006, Michael spent the first five years of his life at Quebec’s Parc Safari before transferring to Santa Barbara. Zoo officials hope that Michael will breed with Audrey or Betty Lou, the SBZ’s two female Masai giraffes.
According to senior Mammal Keeper Wendy Anderson, the exhibit’s onlookers may witness some scenes of savannah romance.
“There are a lot of different behaviors now going on that weren’t going on before, so parents have to be … creative,” Anderson said. “But it is nature and it is what they are supposed to do — reproduce. I think the public, in general, are going to have to get used to it unfortunately because this is a breeding family!”
Director of Conservation Education Tiffany Musgrove said Michael will be an extremely valuable asset to the SBZ’s giraffe population.
“We are all incredibly excited to have this giraffe,” Musgrove said. “It has been a two-and-a-half-year process of trying to get him across the border, and he is going to be such an important breeder, and we certainly hope to have more little baby giraffes running around. He is going to be an awesome dad.”
According to zoo officials, giraffes are rarely shipped across U.S. borders. In the past five years, only one other giraffe has made it through customs.
The zoo is currently trying to transition from Baringo giraffes to Masai giraffes to prevent crossbreeding. Sulima, the only Baringo left in the exhibit, is a 21-year-old post-reproductive female dubbed the “senior citizen” of the herd.
Public Relations Director Julia McHugh said Michael joined the local herd as a donation from local philanthropists the Dreier family, continuing their line of contributions to the zoo.
“[The Dreiers] are long-time zoo supporters,” McHugh said. “They have named all the giraffes other than Sulima. They also named our lions and have supported other exhibits as well.”
The SBZ offers a “Foster Feeder” program that allows guests to sponsor various animals with a $50 tax-deductible donation.
Anderson said the zoo’s family is actively growing — the herd’s youngest member, Daniel, surprised zookeepers by springing into the world unannounced last year.
“Unbeknownst to anybody, the male up in Los Angeles bred Audrey, who was extremely young, and they really did not think she was of age yet to reproduce,” Anderson said. “Well, she was. She came and we weighed them monthly, and her weight gain was normal for a growing girl, and giraffes do not show signs of being pregnant in general, so we came in a year ago, January 9, and found Daniel in the barn!”
According to Anderson, the giraffes are on exhibit in a mixed-species habitat including birds and tortoises — an arrangement that has perplexed some of the larger animals. The smaller species are isolated from the giraffes until interactions become comfortable.
“We are introducing each new animal slowly,” Anderson said. “Well, the first reaction is, ‘Why is that rock moving?’ ”
The zoo allows attendees of all ages to feed the giraffes with a $5 to $6 per person entrance fee. The Giraffe Deck is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on weekends, though the feeding schedule is subject to change depending on the animals’ behavior.
The Santa Barbara Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with prices ranging from $10 to $14 per person. College students can receive a $2 discount off adult admission tickets Monday through Thursday. The facility also offers a number of “behind the scenes” tours listed on their official website, www.sbzoo.org.