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Oakland Zoo giraffes “happy and healthy,” says visiting expert

on October 16, 2014

Over 100 zookeepers, animal enthusiasts and conservationists gathered at the Oakland Zoo on Tuesday to attend a lecture given by Dr. Julian Fennessy, a leading giraffe conservation scientist.

The lecture was offered by the Oakland Zoo and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), which works to protect giraffes and their habitats across the world. Fennessy discussed with attendees the threats facing wild giraffes, including their plummeting population.

Fennessy, executive director of the GCF, is known as “Mr. Giraffe” in wildlife conservation circles. For over 16 years, he has studied giraffe species and conservation across Africa, where giraffes primarily live.

The Oakland Zoo keeps nine reticulated giraffes. The species is originally from southern Somalia, southern Ethiopia and north-eastern Kenya, although the animals kept at the Oakland Zoo were born there or at another North American facility. The population of reticulated giraffes has dropped from 28,000 to 5,000 in the past 15 years: wars, predators, poaching and diseases that scientists still do not understand are all causes for the sharp decrease.

Fennessy was at the Oakland Zoo as a stop on his tour of the United States, where he is calling attention to the conservation issues facing wild giraffes in Africa. According to Fennessy, the Oakland Zoo stands out among other zoos in terms of their health care and management of giraffes. “As a big supporter for giraffe conservation in Africa, Oakland Zoo is the giraffe program in the continent,” said Fennessy.

After giving the lecture and answering all kinds of questions brought up by animal enthusiasts, Fennessy was led to the giraffe exhibit by senior giraffe keeper Amy Phelps. Unlike other zoos, Oakland has female and male giraffes living together. The zoo also has a special exhibit design that features giraffes sharing their one-acre territory, including a pool, a river and a waterfall, with elands, geese and ducks. “They live together because that’s the way they are in Africa,” said Phelps.

Giraffe keepers at the Oakland Zoo are making great efforts to recreate the wild lives of giraffes. “In the wild, giraffes spend 50 percent of their time feeding,” said Phelps, who spends hours everyday hiding tiny pieces of carrots, bananas and lettuce under every rock; behind every bucket; and inside every bush. Because she does this, the giraffes are given the chance to walk around, look for the food and reach for it. “My job is to keep them busy, because that’s what they do in the wild,” said Phelps.

What animal experts call “stereotypical behaviors” are commonly seen among animals in captivity—sitting in one spot all day or licking fences—and are similar to the results of keeping a human in a small room for a long time. “But being able to feed so much, giraffes at Oakland Zoo have lots of natural behaviors and seem happy and healthy,” said Fennessy.

When asked whether giraffes are better left in the wild, Fennessy did not completely agree. “These giraffes wouldn’t survive in the wild at all,” said Fennessy. “Their numbers are crashing in national parks, reserves and communities due to wars and other human activities.” Fennessy characterized giraffes living in captivity as educational tools to engage people and conservation ambassadors for giraffes in the wild.

Earlier this year on June 21, the Oakland Zoo celebrated the very first World Giraffe Day—the longest day of the year for the longest-necked animal. To raise money and awareness for the protection of giraffes, programs have been carried out at the zoo, including “Jeans for Giraffes,” in which denim garments are recycled for money to support giraffe research.

“There are lots of simple things you can do to help protect giraffes if you don’t have a single dollar,” said Phelps. “The important thing is to get the word out there.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story totaled the number of giraffes at the Oakland Zoo at eight, not nine. O.N. regrets the error.

This story was amended on October 22, 2014 to correct the countries of origin for reticulated giraffes, as well as the birthplaces of those kept at the zoo.


  1. Rhona on October 16, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    The Oakland Zoo has 9 giraffe, not 8 as stated in the article. There are 5 females and 4 males.

  2. Alissa Greenberg on October 16, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you for the correction, Rhona! We have corrected the article accordingly.

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