Zoo: Feeding the Giraffes

Feeding the Masai giraffes at the San Diego Zoo.

In all of my many trips to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, one thing I had yet to do was feed the giraffes. I had always intended on it, but it just never seemed to materialize. Last weekend, I finally made it happen. Read on for the ins and outs of giraffe feeding.

Both the zoo and Safari Park offer giraffe feeding as an option for guests. I can’t speak too much for the experience at the Safari Park, except that the feeding time is 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily, but it is on my radar for a future visit. At the zoo, feeding only takes place on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 1 p.m in the giraffe enclosure, located in the Urban Jungle. Vouchers must be purchased in advance from the small shack next to the giraffes. These vouchers go on sale at 11 a.m. (cash only) and are hot items, typically selling out early due to their limited quantities, especially during the summer. If you show up at noon expecting to purchase a voucher, you run the very real risk of getting shut out.

Pro tip: You can buy your vouchers at the information booth right before entering the park gates. Do it! You can pay by credit/debit, you don’t have to queue and since you don’t have to wait until 11 a.m. to buy, you can snatch them up before they go on sale in the Urban Jungle. It’s a no-brainer if you plan in advance. 

Purchase your vouchers at the Urban Jungle Adventures shack or near the zoo entrance.

At a mere $5 for three biscuits, this is the most affordable, bang-for-your-buck upgrade experience at either park. The proceeds support conservation efforts, particularly the endangered Grevy’s zebra.

The zoo houses a herd of Masai giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi), the tallest of the nine subspecies of giraffe, making it the tallest land animal on Earth. The males reach an average height of nearly 20 feet and females measure in around 16–17 feet. Giraffes are also among the world’s heaviest land animals—their hearts alone weigh 25 pounds. As an aside, the giraffes are also housed with a collection of Nubian Soemmerring’s gazelle (Gazella soemmerringii soemmerringii).

On this particular day, we fed two giraffes: Nicky, a female, and Silver, the dominant male of the herd. Silver’s head is covered with calcium deposits that form bumps on his forehead, something typical of mature male giraffes. They were enticed over to the special feeding area where notches in the fence allow them to safely bend their necks downward.

The "leaf-eater" biscuits are specially designed for high-fiber diets.

Meanwhile, a zookeeper explained to participants the two methods of feeding the giraffes. The first way is to hold the biscuit in your fingers and allow the giraffe to use his or her prehensile tongue to wrap around the biscuit and bring it back to its mouth. The second method is to hold the biscuit in your outstretched palm and let the giraffe collect it with its lips. We were told the second option incurs more giraffe slobber.

I decided to give both techniques a shot. We waited as people in front of us sanitized their hands and received their special “leaf-eater” biscuits, which looked not unlike doggy treats. Up the guests went to the feeding area, holding biscuits in their outstretched hands as Nicky and Silver gobbled them up, unfazed by the dozens of unfamiliar people. Some were brave, while others withered under the imposing height and monstrous size of the head and neck arching overhead, angling slowly down toward them. A few kids got cold feet, no doubt feeling smaller in the world than they ever had before.

Pro tip: Unless you want to be amongst the first feeders, come back near the end of the feeding window to avoid the wait. As long as you have a voucher and show up before 1 p.m. they will let you participate.

Silver, a male Masai giraffe, takes a biscuit from a guest's hand as Nicky, a female, watches on.

Soon, it was our time to feed. My girlfriend Chelsey buckled a bit, offering up the biscuit while simultaneously backpedaling to keep her food just beyond reach of Silver’s 20 inch long, dark purple tongue. Further and further Silver stretched for the food, as if to say, “C’mon, you can do it. I’m hungry.” Finally convinced that the giant was no threat, Chelsey scooted forward, enabling Silver to wrap the tip of his tongue around the circumference of the biscuit and curl it into his mouth. After feeding out two more biscuits, it was my turn.

I stepped up to Silver, who was closest. He had returned his neck to a nearly full upright position while he waited for his next treat. As I held out my first biscuit, his enormous head, supported by a veritable tower for a neck, craned down towards me and I understood why some people ahead of me had shrunk in the giraffes’ shadow. Given an easy target, Silver had gripped the biscuit with his tongue and pulled it away faster than I was expecting, though in the process I was able to feel the tiny bumps on his warm tongue. He was clearly well-practiced at the art. In the same manner, I fed him my second biscuit so quickly that Chelsey wasn’t ready to photograph it. I moved with my third biscuit over to the less-aggressive Nicky and held it up to her in my palm. Swiftly, gently, she scooped it up with her lips like a horse taking a carrot, leaving a small bit of moisture behind.

Just like that, we were done. There are sinks on-site to wash your hands afterwards. You are free to use your own cameras, but the zoo also arranges for a photographer to take your pictures, which you can check out and purchase online if you desire. This is a great activity for families, especially since the keepers will let you split the biscuits up between three people if you are cost-conscious.


2 responses to this post.

  1. what a great experience! i haven’t been to the SDZ in ages, but this is inspiration to get back pronto.


  2. Posted by Cassi on February 11, 2013 at 10:02 am

    FYI – You can’t buy tickets at the front anymore. You have to wait in line to buy them by the giraffes at 11am. I was hoping to save some time yesterday, but no dice.


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