Are giraffes vegan?

On safari, watching the animals doing what animals are born to do
Jengo the giraffe on February 5, 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jengo the giraffe on February 5, 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy)

You may have to be South African to really appreciate this. I recently returned from a short break in the world-famous Kruger National Park. The Kruger Park is a throwback to life in Eden; a massive safari that is larger than Israel and one of my favourite places.

When a South African returns home after a visit to “The Park”, his friends confront him with the essential question “Did you see good game?”.

“Good game” for a local is not the same as for a visitor. Tourists would be impressed by a magnificent kudu, a gnarled crocodile or a submerged hippo. South Africans want to know that you saw the “Big Five” (Lion, Rhino, Elephant, Water Buffalo and Leopard). More specifically, they want to know: “Did you see any cats”. Elephants and buffalo are on the A-list, but nothing impresses like seeing a feline predator.

Luckily, we had seen lions (admittedly at great distance, but enough to brag about) and we saw cheetah. Twice. And, let me tell you, two cheetah sightings in two days earned us the admiration of all the wildlife enthusiasts at Shul over Shabbos.

I’m always keen to head out to “the bush”. My father-in-law’s visit for our son’s barmitzvah provided perfect cover (even my wife wouldn’t object to our guys’ trip). He loves nature and, over the years, we’ve hooked him on game-viewing.

We would only have two days there, so I wanted to ensure that they would be fruitful (all self-respecting park-goers know that you have to squeeze in as much game-viewing as daylight hours allow when you visit the Kruger). Thanks to the brainchild of a local Jewish whiz-kid, I was able to track animal sightings in realtime on a Whatsapp group from a few weeks before our trip. My scientific research revealed a pattern of good sightings on the well-known S-28 road. People had seen lions, cheetahs and leopards there every day for weeks, so I was sure it would be a treasure of animal encounters. My father-in-law was in for a treat.

We turned onto the S-28 just as an open “game-drive” jeep headed out. I enthusiastically flagged down the ranger to ask where on the road we could expect to see the park’s ultimate predators.

“Seen anything interesting?” I figured I’d keep the question generic.

The fellow looked at me, grinned and tugged his beard. Not good news. If another beard was his most exciting sighting of the day, we were in trouble.

His passenger, a Dutch tourist must have felt bad to disappoint us and  chimed in with a cheerful, “Many giraffe”. Yup, a tourist indeed. No South African would consider giraffes an exciting bush encounter. Giraffes are beautiful and graceful, but they are not on the Big Five list and, most importantly, they are not cats.

We scoured the landscape alongside that road for over an hour. The Nederlander was right, there were many giraffes. Many. More than I had ever seen in one hour in the Kruger.

No cats. Not a whisker.

So, we watched giraffes. We marveled over their height (they can grow to over 5m tall) and discussed their elongated necks and unique patterning. We chuckled at their awkward gait and watched Ox Peckers pick the ticks off their necks and eyelids.

One giraffe was altogether unfazed by us and our car. He stood an arms-length from us, calmly chewed and crunched, throwing us occasional sideways glances as he did. He was chewing a bone. At his feet were a few vertebrae, the remains of some hapless quarry (my middle son suggested that they may have once belonged to the giraffe’s own brother). He was chewing on a bone, crunching loudly as the bone slipped in and out of his mouth.

I had always known that giraffes were strictly vegan. Giraffes don’t eat bones. Maybe this fellow had suffered a neurological trauma that had rewired his brain to want to chomp on a bone, I figured. But, a quick online query revealed that I was wrong. Giraffes routinely chew bones to extract the calcium inside them.

I should have realized. If a giraffe is chewing a bone, that’s because it’s normal for giraffe’s to chew bones.

Giraffes (or elephants or even baboons for that matter) aren’t human. You can’t take a giraffe for cognitive behavioural therapy, because he is an instinctive creature and can never alter his behaviour. Just as no lion will ever become vegetarian, no giraffe will want to be a carnivore. Animals are wired to behave in a way that they will follow as long as they breathe.

Which is why it’s we’re human. Humans can change. We are not slave to our instincts. Driving an air-conditioned car and snapping HD photos of giraffes eating bones is a clear reminder that, while animals live in the wild today exactly as they did 5000 years ago, we have moved on.

You may be naturally impatient or lazy or cynical, but that’s your starting block, not your definition. When you wake up in a bad mood, that’s your first challenge of the day, not your excuse to snap at your family. Animals are predictably instinctive. But, to be human is to do what does not come naturally.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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