Toronto Zoo's Giraffes Have a New Place to Call Home
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Toronto Zoo’s Giraffes Have a New Place to Call Home

Twiga and Mstari have taken up residence in the zoo's former elephant enclosure.

How do you build a house for a giraffe? That sounds like a set-up line for a joke, but it was asked in all seriousness by managers at the Toronto Zoo last year. The existing giraffe house was one of the Zoo’s original wooden structures, dating back to 1974, and was due to for an update. A solution quickly presented itself: the departure of the zoo’s last three elephants to a sanctuary in California last October left an enormous vacant enclosure that could now be retrofitted to house the tallest of all animals. On Thursday, Twiga and her daughter Mstari posed for cameras as they got used to their new home.

The outdoor renovations mostly involved flattening the landscape, as giraffes aren’t used to having to step over much in the part of Africa they come from. The indoor part of the facility is 173 square metres, making it the largest giraffe house in Canada that’s open to the public. The walls are covered with murals depicting the savannah, realistic enough that the giraffes have been known give the painted acacia trees an exploratory lick or two. A pulley system on the ceiling is used to raise and lower hay feeders and other interactive devices to the appropriate height. “We really try to draw out species-appropriate behaviours,” says Chris Dulong, the wildlife care supervisor who has overseen the African savannah for the last three years. For example, in the wild, giraffes use their super-long tongues to carefully pick the leaves from the tops of acacia trees. Here at the zoo, they do the same with alfalfa leaves mixed in with the hay in their feed.

Both Twiga and Mstari are Masai giraffes, native to Kenya and Tanzania, the largest of the nine subspecies currently recognized. Twiga (Swahili for “giraffe”) is more than 14 feet tall, while Mstari (Swahili for “stripes”) has grown from more than 6 feet when she was born just over a year ago to nearly 10 feet today. According to Bill Rapley, executive director of conservation, education, and wildlife at the zoo, both giraffes are good candidates for the Masai Giraffe Species Survival Plan (SSP) that aims to keep the species vibrant. “It’s all genetically driven,” says Rapley. “We move the animals between zoos across North America, and share the offspring.” Twiga is already a mother of seven, and at age 24 could still have another calf (giraffes in captivity can live to about 30). Mstari, who is the 17th giraffe to have been born at the Toronto Zoo, will be able to have a calf when she’s about five years old.

While giraffes are currently classified as a species of “least concern” in terms of conservation, their numbers could definitely use some boosting. In the last 15 years, wild giraffe populations have dropped 40 per cent, from about 140,000 animals to just 80,000, and have been driven to local extinction in some areas. Part of that is due to poaching—giraffes are hunted for their meat as well as their hides and tail hairs—but a major factor is loss of habitat as reserves are crowded by growing populations.

The Toronto Zoo will bring in a new male giraffe in the spring, and also plans to enrich the savannah enclosure by mixing in antelope and ostrich, species that would share space with giraffes in the wild. For now, Twiga and Mstari have the place to themselves, which seems to suit them. “They entered into this building very readily, and they’re very accepting of it,” says Dulong, proffering a carrot to Twiga, who uses her tongue to gently lift it from his hand. “I think they’re very happy with it.”