The How and Why Library/Wild Animals/Section VII

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VII. The Graceful Camelopard[edit]

If anyone ever held his head high in this world it is Mr. Giraffe. If you could keep him for a pet he could easily poke his head in at a second-story window, and wake you up in the morning. He could stretch his tongue out, quite two feet, and lick your face, or twist it around a curl and pull your hair with it. And, if he would let you, you could climb out of the window onto his head, and toboggan-slide down his neck and back almost to the ground. You would have to put a feed box on the roof of the barn for him, and give him plenty of hay, corn, grass and carrots, or he would eat the tops of the shade trees. Maybe he would eat them anyhow, for he likes juicy green leaves that he pulls himself, better than anything else.

Guess what kind of an animal the giraffe is. Don't be ashamed if you can't guess. The Arabs on the desert, who have known him longest, gave it up long ago. They named him Xi-raph'a, which means graceful. A name that merely tells what a thing looks like is no name at all. Besides, the giraffe isn't a graceful animal. The Greeks, who were a very wise people, made another guess. They called him camelopard (ca-mel'o-pard) because, like the camel, he has a long neck, and his coat is spotted something like the leopard's. Really, the coloring and markings of the giraffe are more like those of the baby deer. The Greeks may never have seen the pretty spotted fawn of the northern forests, or they would have noticed that. The stretched-up neck, and small, arched, gazelle head of the giraffe are not at all like the thick, bent-down neck and tipped-up face of the camel. Let's look this queer animal all over and see what he is like.

He has the beautifully shaped, split hoofs and the slender legs of the antelopes, but the legs are so lengthened that his body appears to be lifted on stilts. His shoulders are so high that his fore-legs look longer than his hind legs, although they are the same length. He has a short brush mane, from between the ears to the shoulders, like the zebra, and the zebra, you know, is a small striped wild horse. He has the fly-whipper tail of the ox. Isn't that a mixture? But there's more to this living puzzle.

The giraffe's lustrous brown eyes are like those of the woodland deer, in beauty and gentleness, but they are set out from the head even more than the camel's eyes. Indeed, the giraffe can pushhis eyes out sideways, as if they were on stalks, and look around behind him without moving his head. Wouldn't he make a grand school teacher? No other animal has eyes just like the giraffe's, and no other grazing animal has an eighteen-inch long, barbed rubbery tongue that he can stretch up another foot, twist around a bunch of leaves and pull them down. It is something like the tongue of the ant-eater or honey-bear. In just two things the giraffe is like the camel. He can close his nostrils against blowing sand, and he can go a long time without water. This is not because he has water pockets in his stomach. He simply seems to need much less water than other animals. Finally, the giraffe's long neck, high shoulders and short body, that form one curved slope from ears to tail, are quite unlike those of any other animal on earth. He is three times the height of a six-foot man, and towers five or six feet above the biggest African elephant.

As an animal, the giraffe is half-way between the ox and the deer. He is most nearly related to the antelopes, of which there are forty varieties in Africa, from the pretty, graceful gazelle to the gnu, or horned horse. But, unlike the ox, deer or antelope, the giraffe has neither horns nor antlers. The two, solid, bony growths on his head are covered with skin and hair, and are topped with tufts of bristles, comically like a pair of your papa's shaving brushes. The giraffe's leg bones are solid, too, while the large bones of all other grazing animals are hollow in the middle. Now, do you know what to call him? "Mr. Graceful Camelopard" is a misfit. He seems to have kept this name only because no other has been found that suits him any better.

Giraffes are very hard animals to find and to capture. Like the true antelopes they are less savage than they are timid. Very wild and shy, they trust to their heels for safety. They live in herds of from a dozen to fifty on the high dry plains of Central Africa, below the desert and east of the tropical forests. Their only enemies are lions, who lie in wait for them in the brush along river banks, and Arab hunters on horses. They are much brighter than camels. Two or three of their number always stand sentinel, while the others feed. This is very necessary, for the tall giraffes are shining marks in an open country. Their short-haired skins ripple and shine like satin with every movement, and in the sun the colors brighten to orange-brown and cream. In the shadow the colors fade and darken to sandy-fawn and seal brown.A sentinel giraffe stands on the outpost of a herd, among the trunks of a clump of thorny mimosa trees, his head just peeping above the crown of leaves. Among the small trees his legs are not noticed. His body appears to be a part of the dancing leaf-shadows and sun-spots. His head, eighteen feet in the air, topping the low growth of the plains, with the open ears, keen nose and stalk eyes, makes a fine watch-tower. It isn't easy to take a herd of giraffes unaware. The only chance the lion has of catching one, is to spring on him while drinking. Even then a giraffe has been known to kick a lion to death. With five minutes' start the swiftest Arabian horse cannot overtake a giraffe.

If closely pursued, a giraffe can escape through a jungle of thorn bushes where men and horses cannot follow, and come through without a scratch. His skin looks to be thin and tender, but it is really so tough and so thick in places that soft lead bullets often flatten out on it. If cornered, the giraffe kicks like a mule. Dr. Livingston, the African explorer, says a giraffe's kick is as bad as a clap from the sail of a Dutch wind-mill. The animal fights with his head, too. Having no horns, tusks, or antlers, he does not lower his head and charge, like a bull elephant or buck deer. He gives a long, swinging blow sideways, using his head and neck as a sort of hammer, and striking with his powerful lower jaw and teeth.

As a rule the giraffe keeps out of trouble by running away from it. In running he has three gaits. He rocks like a camel with his neck stretched out; he trots like a horse with his head held high, and he gallops or bounds like the antelope, but more clumsily, his long neck plunging up and down with every bound. Because of his long stride he can get over the ground as fast as a horse, but he tires sooner.

Most giraffes in menageries and zoos are caught young. A mother has only one baby at a time, an ungainly spotted calf that is almost as helpless as a baby camel. When the herd is alarmed and starts to run a baby may be left behind and be captured. Full grown giraffes are sometimes caught with the cow-boy's lariat, but there are few rough riders who can throw a lariat loop twenty feet high and drop it over a giraffe's head. Great care must be taken to give the plunging, frightened animal plenty of rope, or he may give a sudden jerk and break his long neck.

In his new book on hunting in Africa, that all of you should read some day, Mr. Roosevelt says the giraffe doesn't always run whenmen come near. He got very close to a cow giraffe that had her head in a tree taking a nap. So it seems, the giraffe, like the elephant, sometimes leans up against a tree to sleep. The animal looked at him sleepily a moment and closed her eyes again. As he came nearer she kicked at him. When the rest of the party came up and threw sticks and clods at her, she showed her teeth in an ugly snarl, like a cross dog. Finally she kicked out at them and then trotted away.

Of all the large animals in a menagerie or zoo, the giraffe worries his captors and keepers most. His neck is so long it is always in danger of being broken. He has to have an open sky-light in the roof of his cage to put his head and neck through. Sometimes, in turning around in his small cage, the neck is twisted or a bone snapped. In travelling on a railway, the roof window has to be kept shut, or the first low bridge would catch the head of the animal. He is not ill-tempered, as a rule, but having his eighteen feet of height jammed under a ten-foot roof makes him peevish. Sometimes he refuses to eat, and sometimes he turns vicious and attacks his keeper with his hammer of a head. So, although he looks so gentle, with his mild and beautiful eyes of a deer, you should never go very near a giraffe's cage.

But you should never miss a chance to see one of these strange and interesting animals. Like the bison, or what we call the American buffalo, the grizzly bear, the African elephant, the Bengal tiger, the kangaroo, and many other wild animals, the giraffe has been hunted so long that he is rapidly disappearing. A hundred years from now the children may be able to see only stuffed giraffes in museums of natural history. They will think how lucky the children of our day were to see these queer beasts alive.