Online Dating For Giraffes


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."

There are similar species management programs for Europe, Japan and Australia. And there are similar studbooks and Species Survival Plans or SSP's for every threatened and endangered animal in captivity.

It is not quite so easy to maintain a healthy herd of eastern black rhinos. The animals are endangered and facing possible extinction.

There are just 69 black rhinos in North America: 39 males and 30 females.

One of the newest additions to the rhino population is also at the Miami Zoo. Andazi was born here on July 15. Andazi's pedigree illustrates just how complex all of this can be. Eddie, the father, born in the Cincinnati Zoo, is owned by the Peace River Refuge in Florida, but lives at the Miami Zoo. Circe, the mother, was born at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., and is owned by the Los Angeles Zoo and lives in Miami.

So much for random rhino dating.

"Andazi will probably be recommended to go to another facility for breeding," says the Miami Zoo's Ron Magill. "Depending on where the stud bookkeeper says, where she'll make the greatest contribution to help this highly endangered species."

The gene pool for black rhinos is now so small that simply moving the animals around is not enough to sustain them. Transporting rhinos is not easy or cheap, but there is now serious talk about trading a male rhino with a European zoo to enhance the genetic stock in both regions. And scientists are also looking to take semen from wild rhinos and implanting it in captive animals.

As for Naomi, the baby giraffe, she's already seven feet tall. She doesn't know it yet, but before she gets too old and too big, she too, will be on the move.

"We'll send Naomi to another zoo where she's unrelated to that herd," says Magill, "and we may exchange her for an unrelated giraffe recommended by the stud bookkeeper to maintain a good healthy herd for us here."

Meanwhile, Fezzik, Naomi's father is eager to breed with Kita again. But Kita is in no mood: Naomi is still nursing. But when she is in the mood and the stud bookkeeper says some zoo somewhere has a need, another baby giraffe will be born.

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