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40 And Extra, Extra Long

Krissy Clark

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(Courtesy Oakland Zoo)
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The giraffe exhibit at the Oakland Zoo strives for a certain authenticity. The yard includes gazelles, a griffin vulture and several loud Egyptian geese -- the same animals that giraffes hang out with on the African veldt. But not everything is like it would be in nature.

First of all, the giraffes at the zoo get snacks for good behavior: cinnamon raisin bagels, bananas, carrots, bread. Giraffes here are safe from predators. At night, they sleep in stalls, not the savanna.

And, when it's cold out, well, there's this coat.

"It's very large," zoo keeper Amy Phelps says, as she unfurls the custom-made jacket. "It's difficult to move around. And it's green, hunter green." It looks like a giant North Face parka, or a very large bolero jacket. "It has just the right amount of quilting for the winter, and some little Velcro straps to keep it secured," Phelps points out.

And along the hemline, the name Tiki is embroidered in a tasteful beige. "Yeah," Phelps laughs. "Isn't it fashionable?"

Tiki has enormous brown eyes, thick brown lashes and a long black tongue. At 19 years of age, she's the zoo's oldest giraffe -- that's about 60 in giraffe years. She's the great-great-grandmother of progeny living in zoos up and down the West Coast.

"She comes from a long line of Bay Area-born giraffes," says Phelps, "You think she'd be used to the foggy weather." But actually, as Tiki ages, she's become hyper-sensitive to the cold. Thanks to an ailment called ringbone disease, a kind of giraffe arthritis. Ringbone disease makes Tiki's feet ache, and her ankles swell. She shuffles when she walks--so much so that Phelps can recognize the sound of Tiki's footsteps without looking.

But the big problem is that when Tiki shivers, it hurts.
The Oakland Zoo has tried treating the condition with both Western medicine and more holistic methods. "Tiki gets a chiropractor, a homeopath, an acupuncturist, a masseuse," Phelps says.
The latest treatment: Tiki's new coat.

Except, the zoo tries not to call it a coat -- too anthropomorphic. "We don't want people to think that we're dressing her up in clothes because we think it's cute or because we think it's funny," Phelps says. "That would be very disrespectful to her." But everyone calls it a coat anyway.
(Tiki would not comment for this story.) But Phelps says Tiki expresses a lot with her body language -- and Tiki's feelings about the coat become clear when we approach with it: She stomps a hoof in the dust.

Phelps says that the first time she tried to put the coat on Tiki, "she backed away a little bit and kind of gave us the eye, like, 'If you think I'm going to stand there and wear that thing? No.'"

The ripping sound the Velcro made frightened Tiki at first, and the coat sometimes rubs her hair in the wrong direction. So Phelps has been training Tiki to wear the coat over the past several weeks. Little by little, Tiki's making progress. It still takes three people to dress her, but after five minutes of maneuvering, it's on.

Tiki is in her hunter-green coat, looking about as absurd as, well, a giraffe in a hunter-green coat.
Phelps says she realizes that a giraffe in a coat may be fodder for critics of zoos. Should a desert animal really be in a position to need a coat in the first place? "It's kind of funny. Even though I'm a zoo keeper, I definitely understand the argument against zoos," she says. "And I guess all I can say to that is that in my opinion, at least in the near future, zoos aren't going to go away."

And in the meantime, Tiki's cold.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Cathy Kaye

    From Los Angeles, CA, 07/12/2008

    I as fortunate to see giraffes in the wild in S. Africa ... and there were no bagel shops in sight. Perhaps the physical ailments have connection (as with humans) with a diet that is foreign to their digestive and metabolic systems. Leaves. Greens. Whatever is authentic may do the trick and undo the problem. Arthritis in humans is exacerbated by eating nightshades. I don't snack on twigs. Giraffes would do best avoiding bagels and the rest.

    By Deanna Turner

    From Perry, MI, 07/12/2008

    As a horse owner I suggest you reffer to it as a blanket, not a coat. Or as our fellow equestians across the pond call it " a rug".

    By Josh Neckels


    To Mary King I don't think Amy reads this website.

    By Kimberly McKellar

    From Charlotte, NC, 04/11/2008

    God Bless you,Amy!! We humans are here to take care of the animals, and they in return. There's nothing wrong in trying to help an animal feel comfortable. Keep up the good work!! I think Tiki looks marvelous!!

    By Elaine Scher

    From Carlsbad, CA, 04/11/2008

    Tiki's coat looks a lot like my greyhound's coat, only hers is red.She got used to it, and it really keeps her warm. I have so much admiration for the zookeepers, and Amy, especially, for being so caring
    and ingenious. I hope the coat does the trick for Tiki.

    By Mary King

    From St. Louis, MO, 04/09/2008

    A message to Amy, Tiki's zookeeper: What kind of material is the blanket/coat made of? Is it high-tech, synthetic,light weight? If you have experienced arthritis you may know that ANY weight can be painful. Tiki may still be reluctant because the sheer wight of it may be adding pain. Also, Do giraffe's like human mamals loose more heat from their extremities than their body? Perhaps a hat, a neck wrap or leg warmers might work better to stop the shivering. Worth a try!!!! Keep up the good work!

    By Sonia Miller

    From Charlotte, NC, 04/05/2008

    Thank you so much for the story about Tiki. I don't like cold either and arthritis is worse in the winter

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