23 November 2014

The Columbus Zoo's new “Heart of Africa” exhibit will soon be home to eleven giraffes

Photo by Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Have you ever asked somebody: ‘Why doesn’t the Columbus Zoo have giraffes?’ Adam Felts bets you have. Because he’s heard from more than a few of you. “We hear it all the time,” said Felts, who is one of the zoo’s curators. “It’s ridiculous how often we get that question.”

Fortunately for local enthusiasts of the tallest land mammal, their giraffeless nightmare is almost at an end. On Friday the zoo officially unveiled the name of its newest exhibit, set to open some time in May.

And it will feature all the giraffes you can handle.

The zoo’s newest exhibit, “Heart of Africa” will contain more than a hundred new animals from a dozen different species. The list includes zebras, ostrich, gazelles, storks, cranes, guineafowl, kudu, vervets and wildebeests.

Since last summer Felts and his staff have been busy bringing the new collection of animals to Dublin from zoos all over the country, as well as the wild. “Heart of Africa” will be broken into several individual exhibits, including a “Watering Hole” where different animals will be rotated through at different times of the day.

But the star attractions will undoubtedly be eleven giraffes. The zoo has acquired nine males and two females, split between the reticulated (most common in captivity) and Masai subspecies. One of the males is not castrated and the zoo plans to look at breeding later this year.

The issue of giraffes returning to the Columbus was a matter of “when” rather than “if.” Eight years ago the zoo opened “Asia Quest,” in the process jettisoning its giraffes and zebras from an exhibit the zoo admitted was “outdated.” Since that time the zoo has been planning for this new exhibit to be located on a 43-acre piece of land North of Powell Road.

“The Africa region was always going to be a big one for us,” said Felts, who is in charge of “Heart of Africa.” “And the big reason why is the giraffes and zebras.”

Felts says the biggest final piece of getting “Heart of Africa” ready to open is acclimating the animals to their surroundings. The plan is to begin moving the animals into new enclosures next month, and having zoo volunteers assist with preparing the animals for the public.

With giraffes at the Columbus Zoo that means helping them to be comfortable taking food from strangers. The zoo plans to have public feeding be a part of the exhibit, which involves some measure of training for a giraffe.

“They’re large ungulates, so they can be pretty skittish,” he said. “And each one has a different personality, which we have to take into account.”

A unique challenge with giraffes is that the animals are so keenly aware of the slightest change in their environment. In the wild that helps them avoid predators, but in the ever-changing world of a zoo it can be an obstacle to keeping the giraffes happy.

“We’re trying to be consistently inconsistent,” Felts said. “We’re throwing everything at them right now to help get them used to that kind of change in their environment.”

Felts was happy with where the animals were in terms of training and seemed confident the giraffes would be ready for their unveiling this spring.

“A zoo without giraffes doesn’t make sense, especially a zoo of our size,” he said. “We have great support from our local community; they asked for it, and they’re finally here.”