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Giraffe And Its Enemies

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )



AN old English dictionary, published nearly two hundred years ago, says that the "camelopard" or "camelopardus" is "a beast which has the shape of a camel and the spots of a panther or leopard." Some then thought there could be a monster part camel and part leopard, but if you find "camelopard" at all in the small dictionaries, printed in the last few years, you will probably be told to "See giraffe."

The giraffe is worth "seeing" in this way and every other. Because it is one of the most famous and interesting animals known, a great many mistakes have been made about it. It is the animal which was once supposed to be part camel and part leopard. In the same way, the leopard itself was once supposed to be part lion and part panther. As the fabulous `"camelopard" is really the giraffe, we must know how to tell sense from nonsense, or else we might think of the giraffe as part camel, part lion and part panther, as the ancient Egyptians may have thought it when they first made pictures of it. It is hard to learn the truth even about dogs, cats and other common animals. If you read any book of natural history written two hundred years ago or more, you will find it full of strange mistakes, which make animals now well known, seem fabulous monsters. You may find also many interesting stories about animals that never did exist at all. After reading so much of fabulous animals like the Phenix and the unicorn, cautious people concluded for a time that the giraffe or camelopard was also fabulous. This shows how we can be right and wrong at the same time when we are learning more about natural history. When they began learning more about natural history a hundred years ago, they were right in thinking that there could be no animal part camel and part leopard, but they were wrong in thinking no one had ever really seen as strange an animal as the African giraffe really is.

This difference between sense and nonsense about the giraffe was due to faults in telling just how it looks and just what it really is. Suppose after seeing a giraffe, we take a good photograph of this strange animal and then, with the photograph to help us, try to write a picture in words? Suppose the best we could do were something like this ?

"The giraffe has a very long neck and a rather small head. Its body is rather short, but when it stretches its neck, it is the tallest of all quadrupeds, or animals with four legs. Its legs are long and slender and thoughits body slopes from neck to tail, its hindlegs are not really shorter than its forelegs as some have supposed. With its neck stretched, it is from sixteen to eighteen feet in height. Standing on the ground under a tree eighteen feet high, it can eat leaves from the treetop. Its head is narrow, but long, and it has a very long tongue. It can stretch its tongue and wrap it around anything it likes, as an elephant does its trunk. It has no true horns, but there are two bony knobs, several inches long, on its head, which look like horns. Its neck has a short mane and its body is covered with short and smooth hair. The hair is reddish white to dark red, with darker spots on it. A tuft of hair on its long tail almost reaches the ground. Its tail is a fly-brush, but for which it might be stung to death by poisonous flies. It has beautiful eyes. They are so placed in its head that when it is feeding from the top of a tree, it can watch for its enemies on all sides, without turning its head. It is a timid animal with many enemies. The worst are said to be 'man and the lion.' As it can run very swiftly, this power of looking all around it prevents the giraffe family in Africa from being destroyed by lions, panthers, leopards, hyenas and other fierce beasts. It was once thought to look more like a camel than any other known animal. It has since been thought to look more like a large deer. Some still think it more nearly kin to the deer than to any other animal, but it really does not look like any other animal in the world but a giraffe. Hence, it is now said to belong to a family which has no other members among known animals. It is said, however, to be the `link' between the deer and the wild ox. Its head is beautifully shaped like that of the deer, and it can close its nostrils like the camel."

Suppose we must have an engraving made from this word-picture. If we had the help of the best artists who had never seen a giraffe, the picture might turn out to be as bad as the old pictures of the "camelopard." We might then understand why pictures of animals in books made two hundred years ago may be "fabulous monsters." They were often made from reports and not from nature itself. The reports were often wrong and the pictures from them made this worse than ever.

Our report or word picture is as nearly right as we can make it from the best authorities on the giraffe, who re-port what they see with the "naked eye." But the very best authority on the giraffe is a modern camera, which can take "instantaneous pictures'' of its movement in life. When several hundreds of these pictures have been taken from a giraffe moving around a tree and stretching its neck to eat leaves eighteen feet from the ground, this will show us more of the real nature of this beautiful and strange animal than we can learn from descriptions. We may soon be able to see such pictures from life moving on a screen in the colors of life itself. Then we will be much more interested in all that the best books tell us, and we will be much better able to understand it.

In 1836, when the first giraffe was carried to London from Africa, its habits were closely studied. It wished to reach high for its food. A rack was made so high above it that it could enjoy stretching its long neck for the hay on which it was fed. It learned to eat "civilized food" but it enjoyed carrots and onions more than hay. It was also fond of sugar. When captured young and kept in captivity, giraffes become very gentle, but their nature in captivity begins to change at once from that of their free, wild life. This is so true of all wild animals that we can learn little of their true nature by taking them prisoners or by killing them. The noblest form of hunting is that now being done with the camera, which captures the grace and beauty of the animal's life in freedom and does not take the animal prisoner or hurt it at all.

As the giraffe is an entirely harmless animal, the only excuse for killing it is that of the African savages who eat its flesh for food. It is found only in Africa where it has been in great danger of being completely destroyed. It is sociable and lives in families of from five to forty members. The herds are now growing much smaller. In a herd of twenty, we might suppose there were a grandfather and grandmother, living with their children and grandchildren and teaching them how to escape danger and death. As giraffes and other animals herd together in families, the oldest keep the closest watch against attack by enemies. Old giraffes watch like sentinels while the rest are feeding. Both fathers and mothers will often be killed in trying to save their young. As our own highest quality, which inspires our noblest actions is love, we can learn what is most real in the nature of the giraffe in its wild and free life, when we find that though it is very timid, its love for its young controls its life and makes it "gregarious." As gregarious animals live in herds, flocks or families, those which eat flesh and keep together for the sake of hunting other animals, may become more selfish through this, as do the wolves of a pack. But animals which do not eat flesh, keeping together in a family to de-fend their young, come more and more under the control of love. So we know we can say truly of the giraffe that it is a noble as well as a beautiful animal, when it is living its own free life in the African wilderness.

The leader of a herd of giraffes keeps such close watch that it is hard for lions to get near them. The lion knows this and lies in wait for them at their drinking places. If he misses when he leaps at one of them, they may drive him off or even kill him by kicking him. The great African missionary, Doctor Livingstone, said that being kicked by a giraffe was like being hit by the arms of a windmill. Usually, however, they run from lions as fast as they can. When the lion does not miss in his dreadful leap, he lands on the shoulders of the poor giraffe and fixes his terrible teeth in the animal's throat, so that it soon falls and dies.

When it is said that the giraffe's worst enemies are the lion and man, we are ashamed to learn that man has been a much worse enemy to these harmless animals than the lion. They can outrun any but the swiftest horse, so that African natives could seldom catch them. Their thick skins often stopped the bullets from the poor sort of guns made by the Arabs. When guns made in America and Europe began to be used in Africa, so many giraffes were killed that their leg bones were used in England in making buttons. When modern rifles which shoot from six to ten or more shots without reloading began to be used, the giraffe seemed about to share the fate of our American bisons or buffaloes, which were slaughtered in the most shameful way, until none were left except a few in captivity. Now, however, hunters in parts of Africa ruled by England and other European countries, are not allowed to kill as many animals as they please, but only a few on a single hunt. The eyes of a giraffe seem so full of intelligence and kindness, that any one who looks into them while the animal is dying from his bullet, fired "for sport," must feel like a murderer, if he feels at all. But men who kill their fellow-creatures only "for sport" have not learned to feel in this way. They are controlled by the same "hunting instinct" which controls the lion. Until they learn better, we must not blame them for their fierceness more than we do lions and other hunting animals which have much good in them in spite of their fierce instincts.

Although the giraffe's long neck seems to us the strangest part of its body, its long tongue is more remarkable than its neck. In parts of Africa where giraffes are oftenest found, they feed on mimosas, acacias and other trees which often are covered with long and sharp thorns. These protect the trees from being killed. As the giraffe learns to use its tongue to reach in among the thorns and pluck off the leaves without being pricked by the thorns, it becomes so skilfull in using its tongue that it almost serves the purpose of a hand. Nearly a foot and a half long when not stretched, this tongue stretches like India rubber when the giraffe is using it. The tip of the tongue can be made so small that a captive giraffe is said to be able to pick up a small key from the ground by putting the end of its tongue through the ring. The anteater is the only other animal which has a tongue of this kind, but anteaters are not known to use their long tongues for any other purpose than that of catching ants, while the giraffe's tongue is used often to do the work of our fingers.

While we cannot tell how much intelligence any animal has or how its sense is unlike our own reason, we know that the giraffe is a very intelligent animal or it could not have kept alive while fierce beasts and fierce men were hunting it constantly. We know it was being hunted by men as long as two thousand years ago, because it was captured for the ancient Romans after they had conquered Egypt. Long before that, it had been captured for the ancient Egyptians, who left pictures of it on the walls of their temples or tombs. In using its intelligence against other animals and men which hunt it, it seems to us to act very reasonably. Besides posting sentinels, it keeps out of thick woods because panthers or leopards might leap down on its back from the trees. To protect itself from climbing animals and from lions, it feeds in the dry plains, where the grass is usually short, and the trees so small that even if one of their enemies hid in them, the old giraffes leading the herd would find out the danger. As the kinds of trees which grow best in dry African plains do not wither when the grass is parched by the hot sun, the giraffe has learned to stretch upward overhead for its food, instead of grazing. If it grazed with its head to the ground, lions might easily steal upon it, but when it is feeding with its head high in the air, it has learned to use its strong and beautiful eyes to watch in all directions, to protect its family. So its long neck saves its life and the life of its young. Like all other wild animals, it has reason for great fear. It may be said that it lives in constant fear of death and learns a great deal when it is most afraid. But, as we have seen, it is even more afraid for its young than it is for itself. When such a timid animal as the giraffe will fight even a lion in defense of its young, we feel that it must love them very much, and that this great love does more than anything else to explain what we could not understand in the life of a herd of giraffes, if we did not know that in their wild freedom, they are controlled by love even more than by the fear of death.

When we study the giraffe, what we are learning is life. As the giraffe does not attack other animals, as it often shows love higher than its great fear of the fiercest beasts, we can learn a great deal from this of what is most reasonable in our own lives. As our own reason is higher than this, it begins to prove itself the highest reason in all the life of the earth, when we cease hurting other living beings. Then, though we may be hungry ourselves, if we can even put off eating while we are trying to help others, as the old Father Giraffe does when standing sentinel against lions, we may learn to do the greatest things with our reason. For the great things we can do with our human reason when we do our best with it, show how much higher it is than that of any other animal, or than that of any human being who finds joy and sport in hurting other beings which love life as much as he does.



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