Look, I think it’s best to just get this out of the way early and move on. The birth of this little girl was really, really important to me on a supremely personal level. When we locked down for the first time on March 14, 2020, the Zoo was closed and nobody knew how long it would stay closed. A couple of weeks, maybe? A month? This was all a brand-new situation, this pandemic, and really who could say for sure what the next move would be? Well days and weeks passed and the Zoo stayed closed… and no information was forthcoming, good or bad, about what to expect in the coming days, or weeks. In early May I could feel myself sinking into deeper and deeper depression and I was running out of any strength to fight against it. Finally, on May 11 (I remember it very well), I was virtually catatonic – paralyzed with anxiety and despair to the point where I couldn’t talk to anyone about anything for that entire day. But suddenly, late that afternoon or early in the evening (I’m not 100% sure which), the Volunteers received a mass email from the Education office advising us that we were to be given access to something very new: a drive-through route through the Zoo that we would have the first chance to test out two days later, on the Wednesday. Finally! A glimmer of hope, news of a potential break in the suffocating gloom of the lockdown. I went to bed that night with just the slightest feeling of beginning to emerge from the darkness.
And then, when I woke up the next day, May 12, I was greeted by the news that #BabyLongLegs had arrived. And I was never again as low as I was the day before.
Here is how the Zoo announced it on Facebook on May 13:
This was a very important birth within the population of North American Masai giraffes. Mstari was the number one most valuable female genetically (as far as I can tell, she still is) and I believe Kiko was number three or four. Add to that the fact that the new baby is a third-generation Toronto Zoo kid (her mom, Mstari, and grandma, Twiga, were each born in Toronto as well) and you have a very highly anticipated event. Mstari was a first-time mom and there was a big sigh of relief when the “little” (over six feet tall at birth) girl came out healthy, hale, and absolutely perfect in pretty much every way. And as photos and videos began to flow out into the social media community it became more and more apparent to everyone who saw her: this new girl was adorable. Precocious, inquisitive, strong, cute as a button, she broke hearts within minutes of making her entrance into this world. If you want to find out more about her lineage, I made this post about Kiko, Mstari, and Twiga in 2016, and this post about just Kiko (ostensibly) in 2018. Because of this, I will devote most of my time here to the more recent past and the exciting future for the Toronto Zoo giraffe “tower.”
There was a naming contest (as usual) for the precious girl and she continued to carry the moniker #BabyLongLegs (and #BabyLongerLegs as she grew, if memory serves) for a few weeks. In the meantime, we were treated to photos and videos of her nearly every day – along with frequent Facebook Live Keeper Talks, because so much else about that spring was bleak and scary, and she was an absolutely brilliant light in the wilderness. Every time I went through the drive-through I would pause at the bottom of the giraffe exhibit and everyone in my car would crane their necks, hoping to catch even a fleeting glimpse of those impossibly fluffy ossicones. I actually still remember seeing her for the very first time “in real life” and shrieking with joy. And as more time passed, we started to get a sense of an imminent return to the footpaths of the Toronto Zoo – at least in the outdoor areas at first. For the time being, catching up with her adventures on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and in swapping notes and information with each other carried us through those weeks in between her birth and the pedestrian opening, which came (for members) on the 27th of June, the day I took the above photo. The first week we were opened I showed up all seven days and spent as many hours as my stamina would allow, also continuing to take advantage of the drive-through for as long as it lasted.
But between her birthday on May 12 and the Members’ reopening on June 27 came World Giraffe Day, annually on the 21st of June. And it was decided that that would be the perfect day to make the name announcement, retiring the #BabyLongLegs handle forever. (Well, for this particular young lady, at least.) Once again, I’ll show you how the event went public on the Zoo’s Facebook page, with this post:
And this video:
I booked a Wild Encounter with the giraffes for July 9, a Thursday morning, for an opportunity to get as close as possible to the young princess. Because of COVID, we weren’t allowed to touch or feed any animals on these special tours last summer (and likely won’t again this year) but that was ok: I just wanted a clear shot for my camera and the thrill of her nearness. As would luck would have it, though, that turned out to be the very first day papa Kiko joined Mstari and Amani out on exhibit, a very special moment I had actually learned would be happening during a chance encounter with our CEO on the way in that morning. The only real downside of this was that Amani wasn’t quite as brave as she had been on earlier Wild Encounters to that point, and never really came all that close to us. This was more than offset, however, by the excitement of being there for this milestone event in the lives of this sweet family. Of course it all went off without even a slight hitch, as the Keepers are amazing at the Toronto Zoo and Mstari, for her part, has been an exemplary mom from the very start, which is amazing for a first-timer. It was absolutely worth every penny I spent to be a part of that. I had forgotten how insanely hot it was that day, too, until I saw this photo again. That’s a sopping wet cooling cloth under my cap and I almost never wear a tank top anywhere so… you can just imagine what the temperature had to be like. I do love that giraffe mask, though! I picked that up at the Zoo’s gift shop a few days earlier and kept it aside for exactly this occasion.
The first pathways to open at the end of June included the giraffe exhibit (of course) but, because the rest of the Savanna still had the drive-through running, the path ended there and the only way we were allowed to loop back to the rest of the Zoo was to go through the African Rainforest Pavilion, meaning it was the first building to open last summer. It was several weeks before things were reasonably “normal,” with pathways becoming multi-directional, buildings opening, restrictions loosening a little bit (although timed admission never ended), and even the return of Terra Lumina. Through all these weeks and months, the giraffe exhibit remained virtually the most popular destination for guests as they slowly returned in small numbers. Late in the summer, a camera was added to the outdoor exhibit and it began to stream live video to the internet so people could keep an eye on the budding superstar. Eventually this grew into a bigger deal, and Brizicam began to take advantage of this camera, adding the stream to the Twitch platform (where the direction and zoom of the camera could be controlled by viewers), and enlisting the help of the Learning and Engagement Department to deliver content several times a week (some of which came in the form of Keeper talks). As the staff member responsible for this became more and more loaded down with virtual tours and lessons, the opportunity arose for a few Volunteers to grab the reins and bring the content to the web. And so it was that on October 19, 2020 – halfway between the birthdays of Mstari and Kiko – I donned a party hat and went “live” on Twitch for the first time, running a “Virtual Field Trip” where I answered questions, talked about the animals, and spun some yarns about my experiences being a Volunteer Interpretive Guide at the Toronto Zoo. It’s seven-and-a-half months later and this pilot project has evolved into a much bigger deal – with the original Volunteer team still responsible for the content – where there are cameras at the gorillas and the penguins in Toronto, and several other animals at Animal Parks in New Zealand, California, and – very soon – Texas. You can catch the action on Zoolife.tv, but free access such as was available on Twitch is a thing of the past. Still, we’re all excited to have this success story under our belts and it was a huge reason I got through this past winter – and the more than six months that the Zoo has been closed – a lot more easily than the first few weeks of the spring of 2020. And I will always be thankful for that.
As I wrap this blog post up, I have one last piece of information to pass along, just in case you haven’t heard yet (which I’m going to guess is highly unlikely for 99% of the people reading this piece). Mstari is pregnant again! Giraffes have a very long gestation – 15 or 16 months, generally – with quite a large margin of error for predicting a due date; best we can all work out is we hope to see Amani’s younger sibling emerge sometime next spring or very late winter. It would sure be awesome if the Zoo were actually open the next time Mstari has a baby, but you never know with things fluctuating so much on the pandemic front. For now, we are all hoping against hope that we will be back walking the Zoo’s paths by June 14, and that announcement is (hopefully) imminent. I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity for doing a few of the ZooLife broadcasts from the actual ground of the Zoo, and I would love for that to happen before it gets too hot. If all goes well with a June 14 reopening, there would be a loosening of some more restrictions three weeks later, and then again three weeks after that, when we would finally be able to access the pavilions for the first time in 2021. But for now, I’m looking forward to my next ZooLife talk and trying to keep my spirits up – and those of everyone tuning in. Amani, on the other hand, is probably looking forward to the return of her friends, the peafowl.
I’m going to leave things there for now. I fully expect to be writing about this family again for a future calendar and need to be sure to have something left to tell at that time. Next month: another adorable baby who would probably have been called #BabyLongLegs had that name not already have been taken. I hope you can join me then and, as always, thanks for reading!