By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Hello, up there

Oregon ZooRiley, a male reticulated giraffe, came to the Oregon Zoo for a two-year stay, He’ll soon return to the Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo, which has undergone renovation.
Oregon Zoo
Riley, a male reticulated giraffe, came to the Oregon Zoo for a two-year stay, He’ll soon return to the Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo, which has undergone renovation.

I just met a fascinating new friend — a 10-year-old giraffe named Riley who weighs about a ton and has eyelashes an inch long. To feed him his carrot goodies I had to go up a flight of stairs.

I met Riley during an “Animal Encounter” at the Oregon Zoo.

On the day of our encounter — wearing no strong perfume or lotion, as per instructions — we meet amiable tour host, Dave Thomas, a senior primate trainer and longtime zoo employee. He explains to our group of five a bit about the workings of the zoo — a little world unto itself, inhabited by myriad species.

Dave tells us that zoos have changed drastically since their original concept which was “strictly for entertainment” — what the public then wanted. Today, the Oregon Zoo is a “rich ecosystem of conservation, animal care and enrichment, and education.”

What is of inestimable importance, Dave points out, is the relationship between zoo animals and the humans caring for them. The goal is for the animals to feel comfortable, at home with their caregivers — and especially to have faith in them.

On our tour we shall meet not only the giraffes, but see areas not customarily open to the public, such as the commissary and kitchen area. At our face-to-face encounter with the giraffes, we shall meet the zoo’s giraffe entourage: three males: Bakari, Desi and my soon-to-be friend Riley, who is on two-year loan from Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. He will be returned at this summer’s end.

Readied now for our visit, Dave says, “I don’t want to offend any of you, but before seeing the giraffes I would like you all to please wash your hands.”

As I do my scrub-up, I think how interesting it is that Riley isn’t asked to “wash hands” before meeting us. We wash hands before greeting the giraffes.

With “sterile hands” we head for the commissary and kitchen area. Food for all inhabitants is prepared here, which brings to mind the enormity, not only of food preparation for all these diverse inhabitants, but the complexity of the shopping list for such — as per the notation we see on a memo board that calls for a lion’s ration of three large rabbits; a carcass per week for each wild dog. Dave explains says that a wild dog consumes the carcass at one meal, then is so gorged it scarcely can waddle, but will not eat again for a week.

On the shopping list, too, of a certainty, will be carrots — Riley’s treats.

And we now head there to see the tallest animals in the world and the largest ruminants.

We enter a large viewing area. But wait — this is not the face-to-face encounter that we were to have. All we see is legs, legs, legs. Long skinny, gangly legs, with splotchy orange colored spots. This viewing window is not high enough for to us to see what is atop the legs.

For that, we must go up a flight of stairs to the “mezzanine,” where, with head through a window at just his height, is Riley, a beautiful animal. He’s hoping mightily that Dave has brought carrot treats. If so, he knows we will feed them to him, so he is as glad to see us as we are to see him.

Dave hands out carrots to us all. The first of our group approaches Riley, holds out the treat — and then — then, we are absolutely astounded. Out of Riley’s mouth comes his 20-inch long, purplish black prehensile tongue. Fully extended, he expertly wraps it around the treat and the whole treat disappears, although giraffes have no upper front teeth. Immediately, Riley happily waits for the next handout. We take turns feeding him until his carrots are gone.

We feed him, also, little goodies that look like the treats we give our dog — and Riley teases us. Although this offering is only about the size of a mini-marshmallow, he fully extends his tongue for this crumb of an offering, never drops a one, then shows off by wrapping it up in the middle of his tongue — down it goes. Friendly, gentle Riley is so appreciative of our offerings, he almost slathers us with kisses. This animal knows well how to skillfully play to his audience.

This tongue is only one of many convenient contrivances possessed by these remarkable animals. The tongue’s purplish black color is thought to deter sunburn. The tongue’s little protuberances facilitate eating thorny vegetation. Giraffes use their tongues to clean and groom their nostrils. The nostrils are equipped with muscles that effect closure against sandstorms and insects. The tongue not only expertly wraps around carrots, but around acacia leaves — a favorite food — at heights not reachable by other herbivores. Food favored by these wily giraffes provides considerable calcium and protein, resulting in the need for less intake — aided by their efficient digestive systems. Their intestines are 260 feet long.

Although they appear to be ungainly, a giraffe can reach top speed of 37 miles an hour. They prefer to run from danger, but if attacked by a lion, they can ward off attack with explosive hind-leg kicks.

Their neck — some six feet long — makes drinking difficult — but giraffes can go without water for up to three days. Upon reaching a waterhole, they spread front legs to lower the head whereupon their vast blood vessel network controls the flow of blood to the brain.

The giraffe’s heart has a challenging job pumping blood to its extremities. That heart, that weighs some 25 pounds, must generate about twice the blood pressure required for humans. Back flow is prevented by seven jugular vein valves.

Both male and females have “horns,” about eight inches high, called ossicones. In the womb these lie flat, and after birthing become erect in a few days. A giraffe births while standing. The calf emerges head and front legs first, then falls to the ground, breaking the umbilical cord. The calf, about six feet tall, lands on its head, and within a few hours is frolicking about.

Dave tells us that Riley has arthritis in his legs and requires treatments. Persuading animals to accept treatments and medications sometimes requires clever inducements — such as putting pills in chocolate pudding. But Riley will soon be leaving to go back to Salt Lake City, and, likewise, transporting a giraffe about 20 feet tall is not easy. He will be chauffeured by a driver whose business is transporting exotic animals around the United States.

A special crate for Riley was built for the trip, and now, explains Dave, Riley, by “friendly persuasion” must be taught that getting into that crate is what he wants to do. Dave says some progress is being made. Riley is not yet certain.

I hate to see Riley go. But at Oregon Zoo, I can have encounters with other giraffes — as well as penguins.

And I have pictorial proof of us feeding Riley — as supplied by the zoo. In truth, even without photographic reminders, I would always remember that memorable encounter with Riley, my friend.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


  • What: Giraffe Animal Encounters, Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 1:30 p.m.
  • Where: Oregon Zoo, Portland
  • Cost: Registration required. $120 per person, including zoo admission and photos
  • Contact: Call 503-220-2781 or visit,
  • More information: Penguin Encounters also offered. Discovery Tours are also available but have no animal encounter. (Discover Africa costs $45)
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