Expressive 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Dr. James Aton
The first time I ever visited a zoo, I was six years old. I was on a field trip with my kindergarten class at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, and I was excited beyond belief. Not only was this my first school field trip, but it was also my first excursion into a world where foreign and fascinating animals were on display for me.
I remember the bus ride on the way to the zoo very clearly. I sat in a window seat in the hot and muggy bus, my classmates belting songs that were purposely made up just to irritate the bus driver, and my group talking about all the different animals we were going to see. My friends were already giving their two cents on what their favorite animals were, but having never seen any of these animals, I couldn't declare mine. But by the end of the day, I would.
The arrival of our bus in the zoo parking lot was like waking up on Christmas morning. The excitement in the air was tangible, with anxious kindergartners bouncing on the hot leather seats, waiting their turn to get off the bus and into the zoo. Finally, my group was let off, and I stepped into what I considered to be a magical world. The giant wrought-iron gate loomed before us, and beyond it I could see thousands of people with animal souvenirs and melting ice creams in tow, and at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be part of that crowd on the other side of the gate.
When we finally got into the zoo, our group was assigned a parent chaperone and a zookeeper who was going to act as our tour guide. Our group meandered around the zoo, first looking at elephants, then monkeys, then tigers, and there were many restroom breaks and a lot of pushing at the water fountain. Eventually we found our way over to the giraffe house.
I remember being immediately in awe of these animals. There were three giraffes at the time, and I hadn't ever seen anything so tall in my short life. Our tour guide was telling our little cluster all about giraffes, and I tried to absorb every bit of information, but I quickly forgot it all when she told us that we were going to go right up to the fence and get a closer look.
As we stood there with our noses poking through the chain link fence, one of the giraffes wandered over to us, perhaps curious about these tiny little creatures staring at it. Our tour guide told us that the giraffe's name was Riley, and he was the only male giraffe the zoo had. He was just a couple of years old, and had been transferred to our zoo from the one he was born in when he was just a baby. I felt bad for Riley, thinking that it must have been awful to have been taken from your home and put in a strange place without your parents, but I knew right then that I related to him. I whispered through the fence, asking him if he was lonely because he missed his mom, and of course he didn't reply back, but it had caught his attention, and while he was looking at me I told him that I didn't have a mom either, and it wasn't so bad.
I continued to have this little one-sided conversation with Riley for a few minutes, while our mom chaperone and the tour guide talked with each other and kept a watch out for my rambunctious friends, who were now taking turns jumping off the picnic tables. I told Riley all about myself, asked him questions about Africa, only to later realize that he was bred in captivity and had never actually seen Africa.
At some point, I decided that he must be hungry, and so I bent down and grabbed a leafy twig that had fallen off a nearby tree. I held it up over my head for him, but instead of eating the leaves, Riley licked my face. I will admit that it was really gross, but as a little six year old, I didn't mind the slime. I took that lick as I would have if Riley had been a puppy; it was a sign of affection and friendship. From that moment onwards, giraffes were my favorite animals, and Riley was, and still is, my favorite giraffe.
My family owns annual passes to the Hogle Zoo, so I still go very frequently, and every time I go, I have to see Riley. He's like the dog my dad never allowed me to have. I could be having a terrible day, but as soon as I see Riley, my day gets a little bit better. I feel like we have a mutual understanding of each other, even though I don't have any evidence that Riley even knows who I am. But just seeing him, and knowing that, in the past, I've had conversations with him that I wouldn't feel comfortable discussing with any human being is something that I've incorporated into my relationship with him; he's always there and he will always listen to me, even if he can't give any advice or even acknowledge that he understands what I'm talking about.
I think part of why I automatically felt such an affinity towards Riley, and just giraffes in general, is that I felt like they were just animal versions of me. They're some of the tallest creatures in the world, and I'm not exactly on the short side of the spectrum. Giraffes are tall and gangly, with long skinny legs and knobby knees. Even at the age of six, I felt that, physically, I was a human giraffe. I was even covered in brown freckles, just like giraffes.
It's actually rather strange to think that the reason giraffes are my favorite animals starts with an anecdote of my kindergarten self being licked by one. It would probably be more reasonable to assume that after that experience, I hated giraffes with a fiery passion; but in reality, the exact opposite occurred, and I asked myself why this gross thing happening made them my favorite animals, rather than being the animals I most loathed. I think the answer comes from the fact that, when I was six, I was an extremely lonely child. I did have friends and a good family, but I was still adjusting to the fact that I was never going to see my mom again, and my new brother was taking all the attention from me. I was used to being the center of attention at family gatherings, but now I wasn't, and I felt ignored.
Riley helped me with that. Even though it sounds silly, I think that by getting licked by a giraffe, I was getting attention that I felt had been taken away from me. He was an animal living at a zoo that I had never even been to before, but he was giving me attention, and I knew from my limited experience with friends' dogs that being licked meant that they liked you. I think that simple gesture of Riley licking my face meant that he liked me, and therefore, I liked him too.
Although I still see Riley whenever I go to the zoo, he only ever licked me once, when I was six, but that interaction was enough for me to create a relationship with Riley that still exists twelve years later. Riley is like my giant puppy, even though he lives at the zoo and not in my house, but my feelings towards him are the same. He is an animal that I can rely on, and he's always there to listen to me when I need to talk with someone who will treat me the same no matter the circumstance. I know I would be heartbroken if Riley ever got transferred to another zoo, because to me, it would be as if my puppy had been taken away from me and given to another family. I suppose somewhat luckily for me, the Hogle Zoo just experienced the loss of a giraffe last year, so I'm confident that Riley is here to stay.