The newest arrival at the Bronx Zoo is making her public debut. According to Mongabay.com, the new baby okapi will be on exhibit intermittently, weather permitting. If you don't know what an okapi is, don't worry, you are not alone. Let me show you a couple pictures of Bambesa and her calf Safarani, two out of the thirteen of this rare species that I cared for back at the start of my zoo career. They are often called Forest Giraffes, from the Ituri Forest in the Republic of the Congo. They were not officially described to western science until 1901. Sir Johnston, by then, had spent some ten years trying to see a live one in the Ituri forest. They are a silent, illusive species of the deep jungle. The only sound they make regularly is a chuff, which sounds like a quiet cough. Interestingly, I was part of a team that, with the help of equipment from NASA, recorded and took data on okapi calls, which were discovered to be infrasonic, meaning the majority of the call is too low to be discernable to the human ear, but can travel for miles and penetrate the thickest of jungle foilage. I find this fascinating.
Bambesa was one of my favorite okapis. Why? Well, she was only friendly to certain people, and she liked me. The feeling was entirly mutual. These amazing animals are called Forest Giraffes because they are actually cousins to the giraffe. You might not notice the similarity, but the males have skin-covered horns like a giraffe and they have those long, prehensile blue tongues that can strip a branch of leaves in a heartbeat and are long enough to clean out their own ears and eyes, which is one of those gross things you can't stop watching if you have the chance to see it.
I never expected to fall for these creatures, but they quickly became one of my favorite animals. I feel incredibly honored to have cared for them, to have run my hands over their velvety coats, to have fed them their favorite things - oatmeal and onions, believe it or not. Kawnini, who I am pictured with here, was a complete sucker for onions.
She, like Bambesa, really loved to have her ears cleaned out. They were both kind of like dogs when you had a swab in their ears. They made this funny smile-like face and I fully expected their back legs to start spontaneously kicking. In fact, each okapi I cared for had their own distinct personality. Where Kwanini and Keowe were both laid back and happy to be rubbed, Safarani, the calf above, was prone to rearing up and kicking at you with her front legs if startled, and Katala would run you over for fun if given half a chance. She was a hand full. Bambesa was only friendly if she was in the mood and she liked you. All in all, days getting to know a barn full of these lovely animals was never dull. No, indeed, I can't complain of having led a boring life.
Anyway, in honor of the fabulousness that is okapi, I would like to officially congratulate the Bronx Zoo okapi keepers and the mother okapi, who survived a 14 month gestation to give birth. I hope they both enjoy continued health and a long, happy life. If you live near the Bronx Zoo, I highly recommend you call in advance this time of year before you trek out to see the baby. These are an African rainforest species, after all. They cannot handle much of the New York cold. In the meantime, courtesy of Mongabay.com, here is a recent video of the new baby enjoying her exhibit.