Giraffes are shy. It takes time for them to adjust to new sights, smells and sounds. And, despite their awkwardly long-limbed appearance, they can be dangerous.
These are things that Albert Ferraro, a zookeeper at BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, knows just as he and other keepers know all the traits of the animals they care for every day.
They know that some tigers at the zoo seem to prefer female zookeepers over males, that one of the primates doesn’t like visitors in hats and that some enjoy having music piped into their enclosures.
Since he started at working at the zoo in March, Ferraro has been trying to forge relationships with the four giraffes he cares for.
“We don’t do a lot of hands-on work with them,” he said. “Most of what I do is from a safe distance. ... Their legs are incredibly powerful, and they will kick.”
But even from a distance, Ferraro has learned a lot.
Mopani’s 29th birthday was Friday, and Hope is 23 — long-lived for reticulated giraffes that are common in zoos. Rowan, a 9-year-old, is tall enough to lean over a fence and eat vines growing on a nearby building. And Rosie, the baby of the bunch at 2 years old, is a little shyer than the rest.
The giraffes are gradually placing more trust in Ferraro, who talks to them softly and offers leafy branches as treats. On occasion, one will meet him at the edge of the enclosure and bend its neck down to him.
Building that trust is important because Ferraro is responsible for observing the giraffes and making daily reports about their behavior. Veterinarians don’t see the animals every day and would not otherwise know those details if something went wrong.
Giraffes are not vocal, so Ferraro watches for stamping or pacing, which are signs of stress.
“You slowly try to learn what’s normal for them,” he said.
Routine, though, is not natural for wild animals.
So in a way, Ferraro, being a newcomer, is good for the giraffes. Part of his job is to develop enrichment activities — sensory and social stimuli that give animals something to think about. Sometimes he’ll plant a colored flag near the enclosure or play music.
“It’s as if they went to a new area in the wild or a new animal came through,” he said.
This is the first paid zookeeper job Ferraro, 23, has had. He started volunteering at a zoo in his native Connecticut when he was 12, studied biology in college and interned at Audubon Zoo in New Orleans before coming to Baton Rouge.
“I fell in love with all of it — the kind of work with the hard physical labor; I fell in love with the people and, of course, the animals,” he said.
Even though zoo animals and keepers don’t have relationships akin to dogs and their owners, it is nevertheless a relationship.
Conni Pope, an animal technician who has worked at the zoo for six years, is able to tell most of the 21 adult and seven baby giant fruit bats she cares for apart from one another.
When she was feeding the bats their usual mixture of fruits and vegetables on Friday, a few waited for Pope to bring a piece of cantaloupe — their favorite food — and handfeed it to them. Some seemed to know their name when called — Fat Mama, Ned, Edith, Diego, Moxie.
Pope often thinks about them even after going home, especially if a bat is sick or hasn’t been eating. They all have distinct personalities that make them easy to get attached to, she says.
Some zoos today don’t name their animals because “it kind of helps you distance yourself from it so you can make not emotional decisions — the emotional decision versus the well-informed, logical decision,” Pope said. But she sees names as a way to connect with animals.
Pope works in the KidsZoo, which includes fruit bats as well as emus, kangaroos, prairie dogs and domesticated animals like goats and pigs. The animals selected for that area are generally sweet, have a good temperament and can handle yelling children, she said.
Jennifer Shields, who coordinates the zoo’s educational programs and summer camps, said seeing and touching an animal has a longer-lasting impact than just reading about it.
“It’s not just a python; it’s Monty the python,” Shields said, referring to one of the zoo’s 40 animals that she trains for events. Some species are better with kids than others, and within species, different personalities must be considered.
Some animals only like women or are annoyed by blonds or dislike going to the birthday parties that children can hold at the zoo.
The things that tick animals off are just their instincts and part of nature — something that electronics-addicted children need to learn more about, Shields said she believes.
It’s something Ferraro is trying to learn more about, too, as he strikes a balance between growing his knowledge about animals and his fascination with them.
“They’re not my pets,” Ferraro said, “but you give them love from the other side of the fence.”