Rest in Peace, Sydney the Giraffe

Sydney the Giraffe (Photo Courtesy of ZooWorld)
Thirteen years ago, I nervously filled out a volunteer application and began my first real (if unpaid) zoo job at ZooWorld of Panama City Beach, FL. I was given a rake, a bucket and an introductory lesson about the petting zoo. Here are the highlights:

1. The goats will figure out a way to escape. It is your job to play linebacker and catch them before they make a dash for the rest of the zoo.
2. The llamas really do spit. Oh, and they hate you. For real. Never look them in the eye.
3. The goats will realize your fear of the llamas very quickly. They will spend most of their time INSIDE the llama enclosure. Don't you DARE go in there after them, or you will be sorry.
4. The pigs are fantastic, and they are actually really smart. Rethink your decision to eat pork.
5. Stay away from the dromedary camel. He is the only creature in the entire petting zoo scarier than the llamas.
6. You will meet a giraffe named Sydney, and he will completely rearrange your destiny.

Okay, maybe no one TOLD me Sydney would rearrange my destiny, but he did. Literally and profoundly.

It didn't happen immediately. I was mostly nervous around him at first. That long, bowlegged stance... The super flexible neck... The muscles that rippled like waves through his chest... Sydney may as well have been an alien--and a wicked fast alien at that--so I mostly just dropped off his food and stayed as far away from him as possible.

But then something strange happened. He started watching me. He began perking up whenever he saw me, and he began leaving guests on the platform to run over to the barn to see me.

Did this animal actually know who I was? Did this animal actually (*gulp*) LIKE me?

The realization that Sydney had preferences--just like you and I have preferences--was astonishing. And the realization that I was one of his preferences was even more amazing.

I began spending all my extra time with him. I sketched him, I sang to him, I sat quietly and watched him eat. And he began responding to me, too--greeting me differently than he greeted anyone else, leaning in for kisses and staring after me long after I walked away.

Some of my favorite memories are the afternoons I spent cleaning his stall. I would lock him outside in his yard, but he would often lean in and stick his neck through his open window. He was HUGE--nearly seventeen feel tall--and I would usually be so absorbed in my raking and hosing that I wouldn't even notice his presence until he extended that great big tongue and wrapped it around my ponytail. Or, even better, when he would sometimes simply lower his head onto mine until I felt the gentle weight of his jawbone against the top of my head. He never pushed, and he was never fussy. He simply moved his head along with me, following my every action like an oversized giraffe hat.

When I left for college, I cried at the realization that I would no longer be able to interact with Sydney on a daily basis. But I realized as he watched me leave that I was no longer the same shy, hesitant girl he first met. My attachment to Sydney was strong enough to build my confidence and send me on a career path that would lead me to zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country.

So where did that leave Sydney? At ZooWorld of Panama City Beach, FL, where he delighted and amazed guests for the next thirteen years. Where he was loved and spoiled by the public and by his keepers. Where he undoubtedly launched countless other zookeeping and environmental education careers.

Where--no matter how far away I found myself--he was always, always, always loved by me.

This morning, Sydney passed away. At nearly 30 years old, he was a very, very old giraffe.

My sadness over his passing is profound, and I can't imagine how many other lives he touched. The two years I spent with him were a gift, and I will never, ever, ever forget the gentle weight of his jaw as he leaned inside his stall to spend time with me.