Don’t Feed the Giraffe
Giraffes are wild animals who don’t want to interact with humans—even in captivity.
Giraffe encounters where visitors take photos with or feed captive giraffes are one of the most common animal-visitor interactions at zoos, amusement parks, and even “giraffe ranches” across the world. Despite their popularity, these encounters hurt animals.
Many people think that captive wild animals are domesticated, distinct from those living in the wild, and that they’re used to or even enjoy being near humans. But only a tiny fraction of species—cats and dogs most famously—are domesticated, a process that takes thousands of years. The giraffes used in these encounters are wild animals who have simply been confined and denied the freedom to choose how they spend their time.
Captive Giraffes are Stressed
Giraffes live in open grasslands or woodlands in Africa. They’re not suited to a life in a barn or enclosed field in the US, where they’re given a fraction of the space and few of the enrichments they’d enjoy in the wild. Captive giraffes are suffering, and their distress has physical manifestations.
To assess an animal’s stress level, scientists often rely on stereotypies—repetitive, purposeless behaviors or sounds such as otters screaming for long periods of time or dolphins grinding their teeth down. A highly-cited study found that 80% of captive giraffes and okapis (another kind of ungulate) exhibited stereotypies, primarily the licking of a non-food object and pacing.
Scientists point to a simplified diet and long chunks of unoccupied time as possible reasons for the high level of stereotypies in captive giraffes. However, an inadequate and unstimulating environment is not the only problem that giraffes in captivity face.
Captivity Breaks Giraffes’ Complex Social Bonds
Giraffes are sensitive and social animals. A recent analysis of more than four hundred giraffe studies confirms that giraffes are socially complex. Far from “aloof,” giraffes mourn dead calves, share caretaking responsibilities for their young, and female giraffes form close, years-long friendships with one another.
In captivity, decisions about giraffe management are often driven by profits, entertainment value, and the desire to maintain genetic diversity to breed more giraffes—not the animals’ psychological well-being. Even though some giraffes stay with their mothers for life and have deep bonds with one another, captive giraffes are repeatedly bred, traded, and sold between zoos and other wildlife venues.
Giraffe selfies and feeding opportunities are a business, and these businesses know that babies bring even in more tourists. At low-welfare zoos, giraffes are sometimes bred to draw crowds. Then the babies are sold off, and the cycle continues. Despite flimsy claims about conservation, none of the giraffes born in the US will be reintroduced into the wild. Unfortunately, most captive endangered animals will never experience their natural habitats.
Giraffe Encounters Perpetuate Cruelty
Venues that offer feeding encounters may tout that giraffes willingly walk up to people to take food. Visitors may mistake the giraffe’s interest as affection. Instead, giraffes simply want and have to eat! Giraffes spend the bulk of their day eating, consuming roughly 75 pounds of food like leaves and shoots daily. They are not dogs and cats seeking out human companionship.
Offering food to a giraffe who can retreat from the encounter might seem less harmful than some of the higher-intensity offerings that roadside zoos and marine amusement parks sell like swimming with dolphins, posing with lemurs, and yoga with sloths. But when you pay to feed or take a selfie with a giraffe you’re not only infringing on a wild animal’s freedom, you’re propping up an exploitative industry that uses giraffes to attract more tourists and make more money.
Help protect giraffes by only supporting accredited sanctuaries and never visiting places that allow humans to interact with wild animals.