Feed the giraffes a lofty lunch at zoo - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Feed the giraffes a lofty lunch at zoo

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Posted: Saturday, July 4, 2009 5:00 pm | Updated: 1:22 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

You never think about how long a giraffe's tongue is until you're face to face with it.

Slideshow: Giraffe feeding

You never think about how long a giraffe's tongue is until you're face to face with it.

Slideshow: Giraffe feeding

As 22-month-old Chloe Blick extends a ruffle of bright green lettuce, Jambo, a 12 1/2-foot-tall female giraffe, looms close and slowly unfurls her tongue, an 18-inch blue-gray ribbon that's coarse and slimy. Blick, in her mother's arms, grins with delight.

"Look at her smiling! She's not scared at all!" her family cheers as tiny Chloe offers the silent giant another treat.

The family is at Giraffe Encounter, a new feeding and observation deck at Phoenix Zoo that lets visitors get face-to-face with the world's tallest land animal. The idea is to inspire visitors of all ages to connect with - and care about - the natural world.

In the works for months, the platform, which stands at about 10 feet, is pretty basic. That's because the main attraction is what's just over the rail: Samburu, Jambo, Charlie, Zuri and Makope, the giraffes of the zoo's African savanna exhibit.

"They're the perfect animal for this kind of thing. They're really a very gentle animal, and they're a high-profile animal. I'm partial, of course, but they're a beautiful animal. Those big brown eyes look at you at this range and - well, I've been here 10 years, and to see them up close like this is just amazing," says Mike Foley, manager of trail experiences at the zoo.

For $3, visitors get a few moments on the platform to eyeball the giraffes up close and feed them lettuce and special biscuits made especially for leaf-eating ungulates.

From this view, one notices a lot about the animals: their dark, enormous eyes framed in Disney-esque fringes of long, full lashes; their lips fuzzy-soft as peaches; their prehensile, purplish tongues; the skin-covered bony knobs, called ossicones, protruding from their foreheads like remnants of antlers that never had a chance.

It's no wonder the attraction, which opened quietly in June, is already popular, says Elaine Paul of Gilbert, a zoo volunteer who shows visitors the proper way to feed the giraffes.

Her advice: Move slowly, speak softly, hold your hand flat as a board when you offer a biscuit and no petting (the giraffes aren't accustomed to it and rear their heads cloud-ward).

"Whether you feed one or not, you're inches away from the tallest animal in the world, and that's pretty magical for all ages," says Foley.

Tickets to feed the giraffes can be purchased at the front gate or with cash only at the exhibit 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. daily.

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