Of giraffes - the ones that got away and the ones that didn't

A look back at the surreal history of these creatures shows them to be the most surreal in the natural world.


It was one of those comi-tragic fables that seemed to belong to another age: the tale of the giraffe that escaped from a circus in Italy last week and enjoyed a brief frolic around the town of Imola, to the alarm and delight of the natives, only to suffer a fatal heart attack after being returned to its enclosure. Of all wild creatures, giraffes have to be among the most surreal.

There was a time when I would drive to work through Regent's Park; on a good day, you could just glimpse the giraffes standing outside their stall and reaching up to eat their leaves. The sad fate of Victor, the giraffe at Marwell zoo, who collapsed and could not get up, lives on in the folk memory from the 1970s. His agony went on for weeks, chronicled in daily bulletins; a special sling was built to lift him, but to no avail. As experts had warned at the start, a giraffe that sits down almost never gets up.

Earlier this year, I discovered an engaging (and true) giraffe story at a Paris exhibition called Beauté Animale. A wall of illustrations depicted the arrival of Zarafa, the first giraffe in France – who was a gift to Charles X from the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt. The beast had been transported down the Nile from Sudan, then shipped from Alexandria to Marseille, where the city fathers agreed that getting a giraffe from there to Paris would not be easy. (The year was 1826.) In the end, it was decided that Zarafa should walk – which she did, over 41 days, becoming the talk of France, as ever bigger crowds turned out to see her. Everything giraffe was suddenly à la mode.

The walk clearly did Zarafa no harm, as she lived another 18 years in the Jardin des Plantes. With giraffes becoming all the rage, however, we had to have one, too, and George IV took delivery of his the following year – another gift from the Viceroy. But it survived less than two years in what became the London Zoo.

Maybe, though, there was more to Zarafa's longevity. As in many other areas of life, so with animals, I tend to think that the French have a superior sensibility. Perhaps they just appreciated their giraffe that bit more.

Watch out for popping corks

With the politicos away in their constituencies and second homes, Westminster restaurants are rarely packed at weekends. Last Saturday, though, I was amazed to find the modest local Asian eatery already crowded at 7pm. Had we arrived any later, there would have been no table. Yes, the proprietor said, things had picked up a good deal since the summer.

Something similar was to be seen this week at a sound, but distinctly unflashy, café around the corner from our office. Not only were most of the tables occupied soon after 6pm, but – an even rarer sight this – a striking number of people were quaffing champagne. What's going on? Are we trying to perpetuate the Olympic spirit by eating, drinking and making merry without heed for the morrow, or are we, could we be, sensing that austerity has run its course?

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