How did a kid from a small town in Ontario, Canada, from a Slavic-Celtic family background, who never travelled much, end up being a collector of giraffes?
It started, for me, with high-school drama class. We were mounting a children’s play based on a Bantu folk tale that had inspired a recording, “The Tale of the Name of the Tree”, by American actor-singer-comedian Danny Kaye. The story was filled with African animals, a “tortoise and the hare” kind of story about a slow-but-steady baby tortoise saving the day when all the other larger, swifter creatures of the savannah and forest had failed.
Our drama teacher created a script, based on the recording, that would work as a children’s play to tour to local school gymnasiums and began casting. I was then, as now, 5′ 9″ tall and then, not as now, skinny as a rake. I became the giraffe. Pulled on leggings and a long-sleeved bodysuit with some spots sewn on, drew big eyelashes on my face, and tied up my hair into two nubby horns atop my head.
The giraffe turned out to be a popular character with the little kids in our audiences and I left high school with a handful of cute thank-you notes with gangly giraffes drawn on them. When I moved into first-year residence and decorated my bulletin board with mementos of Life Before University, one of those drawings was in the collage. That Christmas my roommate, casting about for a small gift to give me, came up with a stuffed giraffe, which I put on the shelf over my bed.
Giraffes apparently demand company. Once you have one, someone spots it and gets you another. And another.
At first these were more stuffed giraffes, and then many more, most of which over the years I’ve re-gifted to visiting children. But then the Giraffa camelopardalis started to arrive made from other materials: glass; brass; ceramic; metal; wood. A birthday or other gift-occasion time rarely went by without me unwrapping a giraffe.
My father loved to shop at garage sales and he would hunt for giraffes among the treasures. One of those is a sitting giraffe about four inches tall made out of ceramic. When he gave it to me, I burst out laughing: it had the word “Banff” painted around its neck, Banff being a national park and tourist destination town in the scenic Rocky Mountains of Canada. He grabbed it from me and started to scrape the painted word with his fingernail. “No, no!” I pleaded. “It’s better with the word on it!” Alas, time has finished the job my father’s fingernail started: there is just a spot of black left on the neck, which broke during one move and was glued back together. Who was the person who customized a giraffe as a tourist trinket from the Canadian Rockies? That brings a smile to my face, every time I think about it.
Giraffes worked their way into more-practical gifts, too: wooden salad tongs; bookends; picture frames; a metal ring holder, found by a friend of my mother’s at a garage sale. For many years I never bought anything with giraffes myself, given the influx that arrived without my help, but occasionally now I find something — from a water bottle to a serving platter — that joins the collection.
I also have a soapstone vase and two small plates, decorated with giraffe and antelope figures, that commemorate the one time I’ve actually touched a giraffe.
I’ve seen giraffes at zoos, notably at the Toronto Zoo, but this was at the Giraffe Centre, near Nairobi, a 60-acre sanctuary that is home to Rothschild giraffes (yes, there are different kind of giraffes; four species that cannot interbreed, plus another five considered subspecies). It’s the creation of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, a Kenyan non-profit organization founded in 1979 by the late Jock Leslie-Melville, a Kenyan citizen of British descent, and his American-born wife, Betty Leslie-Melville. Their former home is now the Giraffe Manor, an inn adjacent to the sanctuary.
I was in Nairobi on a layover when on a journalism assignment in Africa: We had arrived at night and weren’t leaving for the next leg of the journey until the following evening, so I found transit out to the Giraffe Centre during the day. There, you can feed giraffes from a second-storey platform at the visitors’ centre (where there’s also a gift shop featuring all things giraffe, including my soapstone vase and plates).
The animals’ dark eyes really are remarkable and the lashes as luxuriant as I’d seen in closeup photos. What I wasn’t expecting was the tongue: dark, bristly, muscular, and twisting adeptly to scoop up food: to get licked by a giraffe is to have the harshest loofah scrub of your life.
Giraffes are beautiful, if at times awkward, creatures. They are herbivores who, in the wild, only have a 50-per-cent chance of living past six months as young giraffes are favourite prey for carnivorous lions and their kin. They once roamed widely in Africa and now survive in limited numbers, mostly in national parks. For many years it was thought giraffes made no sound but scientists have since discovered they, in fact, emit low-frequency sounds, akin to a hum, at night. They have among the best vision of all animals but the speculation now is that, in darkness, the giraffes keep track of one another in the herd through sound that’s hard for other mammals to hear.
I like them because, as a teenager, I looked enough like one — long legs and all — to be one, on the stage. And the sight of a giraffe figure, whether on my mug or on my shelf, will always bring a smile to my face.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen. More photos of my giraffe collection are being featured daily on facebook through August 2017.