There was a moment, upon our first up-close encounter with Miles, a 5-year-old giraffe at the Houston Zoo, when the animal’s slow-motion gait, gently arching neck, and big doe eyes seemed like the height of natural majesty. That was before a string of sticky saliva landed in our hair and a slimy, 18-inch tongue was dispatched from above, attempting to confiscate our expensive tape recorder.
“Are they smart?” we asked, fending off another attack.
“In the wide spectrum of animal intelligence, they’re not like an elephant or some of the large, upper-level primates that are increasingly intelligent,” explained the zoo’s senior keeper with its Hoofstock Deptartment, Kim Siegl. “Within their abilities they’re pretty smart, and they all have individual differences.”
If that sounds like the diplomatic answer you’d expect from a mother standing up for her young, it might as well be. Siegl, a 33-year-old zoologist who grew up outside Chicago and refers to giraffes as her favorite animals of all time, has helped raise two of them—Miles and Neema—by hand.
“You really come to love the species when you’re hand-raising a baby 24 hours a day and then bottle-feeding them for months,” Siegl said. “You get a good feel for the individual you’re raising as well as their likes and dislikes.”
We asked her for an example, pointing to Miles, who had taken to making slow loops around the giraffe barn, pausing every so often to dip his head over a nearby wall and drink water out of another keeper’s hose. “Miles is one of our very curious giraffes and he’s very food motivated, but also loves attention too,” she said. “He’s constantly soliciting head rubs from anyone he encounters.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when zookeepers didn’t talk about animals like the rest of us talk about our kids. Back then, keepers were mostly men who did more cage cleaning than connecting with animals. But a new generation of keepers, many with degrees in biology, zoology, and veterinary science, has taken their place. “The field has evolved to get more of the animals’ cooperation rather than us forcing them to do something,” Siegl said. “It’s healthier for everyone involved.”
For Siegl at least, building a relationship with an animal can be easier than building a relationship with a person. A self-described introvert, she told us that leading tours and interacting with visitors has helped her overcome a lifelong shyness around people, but she’s always felt at ease around animals.
Siegl’s days in the giraffe barn, especially when it’s particularly cold or hot outside, can get long. What keeps her happily coming back, she said, is the lack of routine that comes with caring for an 1,800-pound creature that continues to surprise her.
“I like people okay,” she said, laughing. “But there’s never a day when I’m sick of being with my animals. It’s never because of the animals that I’m having a bad day.”