Online Dating For Giraffes

ByABC News
November 30, 2006, 6:18 PM

Nov. 30, 2006 — -- Naomi walks cautiously through the grass, stepping gingerly on legs that appear more fragile than those of a china doll. Not even two months old, the baby giraffe never lets her mother, Kita, out of sight.

Visitors to the Miami Metrozoo and other zoos across the country can't help marveling at such wonders. But it would be a mistake to assume that Naomi's conception was a simple act of nature.

"It's a lot more complicated than that," explains the Miami Zoo's Ron Magill. "Each one of these births is very carefully planned. It's almost like a very fancy computer dating service that basically designates who the father and the mother are going to be because we want to make sure that the babies are the most healthiest produced babies."

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Fezzik, Naomi's father, comes from the St. Louis Zoo. It was an arranged marriage.

That's because the last time a giraffe was brought to this continent from the wild was 1984. Conservation, government regulation and public attitudes make it almost impossible to import new animals. So the gene pool is limited.

There are 605 giraffes in 143 zoos and game parks across North America: 250 males, 355 females.

Keeping track of every one of those giraffes is the keeper of the "Giraffe Studbook." Working from her home near Asheville, N.C., Laurie Bingaman Lackey tracks the genetics of the entire North American giraffe population.

"When you walk into a zoo, you are not looking at a random set of animals," says Bingaman Lackey. "It's a survival issue for the animals and the zoos. In some cases, there aren't any more to get and in other cases, it's not feasible to take them from the wild."

Bingaman Lackey can trace Naomi's roots back six generations on her father's side to giraffes imported from the wilds of Africa to zoos in Chicago and Dallas in the 1950s. Their descendents were found in zoos in Denver, Milwaukee, St. Louis and now, Miami.

"All the animals are shared in the zoo community," says Bingaman Lackey. "A zoo owns them but that doesn't mean others can't have them. They are treated as one giant herd. The main focus of the breeding program is that zoos have enough of the species but not too many. We have to be careful not to breed more animals than there are suitable homes. On the other hand, if you don't breed enough, the population starts crashing."