While giraffes may be very different types of mammals to humans, they share the same maternal instincts to protect and care for their babies. And when female giraffe Marilyn gave birth to a non-moving calf, onlookers watched with bated breath as the new mother tried to stir life into her child.
Marilyn herself lives at Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, and she and others of her species can be seen in the attraction’s “African Veldt” section. As the name suggests, this area of the zoo includes animals typically found on the open plains of the continent, such as zebras, rhinos, African elephants and ostriches. Reticulated giraffes like Marilyn, meanwhile, can be found in the wild in northeast Kenya, Somalia and the south of Ethiopia.
In addition to their lengthy necks and similarly elongated legs, reticulated giraffes are distinguished by their polygon-shaped patches of sandy-colored fur. Females of the subspecies may weigh as much as 2,600 pounds; males, on the other hand, may be almost double that. And, of course, these animals are tall – some male reticulated giraffes may even reach to 18 feet.
Furthermore, at the time of Marilyn’s pregnancy, she was far from the only giraffe at Memphis Zoo; Kenya, the father of Marilyn’s child, also lived at the attraction. Two years prior, another baby had been born at the facility too – and perhaps hopes were high that Marilyn would add to that tally with a successful labor.
Then, in August 2008, with Memphis Zoo staff members and visitors looking on, Marilyn prepared to give birth. As onlookers quietly stood by, the giraffe paced around her enclosure, getting ready to bring new life into the world. What’s more, the entire process was captured on camera at the zoo.
When two hooves started to appear, however, Marilyn stopped walking and held very still. After a moment, she took a few more steps, and a head became visible next to the hooves. Then, in one quick motion, the rest of the baby emerged and tumbled down to the ground, where it lay unmoving.
As the calf remained motionless, however, Marilyn slowly turned around to check on her child. And when she noticed the still form, she bent her long neck down and began to lick and nudge the newborn. At this point, though, there was still no response from the young animal.
Then Marilyn nudged the baby again, and there was movement. Slowly, the calf raised his little head and opened and closed his mouth, as if just waking up from a long nap. It was later revealed that the animal was male, and he was dubbed Kofi – a Ghanaian name often given to boys born on Friday.
At birth, Kofi already came in at around six feet tall. And that was roughly the distance of the drop he had endured upon being expelled from his mother too. In fact, giraffes are one of the few animal species to possess horns at birth – ostensibly to keep them safe from that fall.
And giraffe calves are also quick to learn to learn how to walk; they usually do so in an hour or less after their births. The process may not be without a trial and error period, however, as Kofi makes apparent in the video of his first moments. In particular, the footage shows Kofi attempting – and failing – to climb to his feet on several occasions. Then, after having fallen repeatedly, Kofi finally stands upright and, legs splayed awkwardly, takes his first few tentative steps.
The clip also shows Marilyn following closely behind her baby for reassurance. Her maternal skills would later earn her praise from Memphis Zoo giraffe keeper Richard Meek, who is quoted in a press release on the birth as saying, “[Marilyn] is already being such a good mother.” However, the animal had already had a little practice at being nurturing towards a young calf.
Two years before Marilyn had her baby, another female giraffe at Memphis Zoo, named Alta, had given birth to a baby girl. The calf – named Angela Kate – was the first giraffe to have been born in more than ten years at the attraction. Sadly, though, Alta would ultimately shun Angela Kate.
But when the newborn did not receive the proper care from her mother, Marilyn stepped in as a sort of surrogate parent. Marilyn had herself delivered her first child not long after Angela Kate had entered the world; unfortunately, however, her calf had been stillborn.
Such a tragic state of affairs isn’t unusual. Indeed, in 2006 Houston Winbigler, Memphis Zoo’s assistant curator of mammals at the time, told WMC-TV, “Stillborn births are very common for the first birth. In fact, most hoofed animals lose their first babies.” It seems, though, that Marilyn honed her maternal instinct while rearing Angela Kate, so she was more than ready to raise her own baby when the time came.
And in 2008, Memphis Zoo’s Matt Thompson would speak of Marilyn in glowing terms. “Marilyn is a great candidate for a young mother,” he is quoted as saying in the press release covering Kofi’s birth. The curator of mammals added, “This is the first time she will actually nurse a baby, but she already has the experience of nurturing and caring for a baby the way she did with Angela Kate.”
But Kofi would not be Marilyn’s only living offspring. Indeed, since Memphis Zoo welcomed the little calf in 2008, the mother giraffe is thought to have gone on to give birth at least four more times. And in 2017 Marilyn even become a grandmother of sorts.
That’s because, in August of that year, Memphis Zoo would announce that a new baby giraffe, named Panya, had arrived – and the mother of the child was none other than Angela Kate. What’s more, Panya had been born during a veritable baby boom at the zoo, with three other young giraffes having been welcomed at the attraction in the four months leading up to the calf’s birth.
And in a 2017 blog post on Memphis Zoo’s website, area curator Courtney Janney would speak of the staff’s delight at the new arrival. “We are thrilled to welcome Panya into our herd,” Janney is quoted as saying. “Three calves in four months is something to celebrate!” The post also explained that Panya’s name is Swahili for “small” or “mouse.” The calf was so named because she was on the small side for a giraffe when she was born – five feet tall instead of the typical six feet.
However, Panya’s mother did not seem to be put off by the calf’s diminutive frame. “Angela Kate is a phenomenal mother,” Janney continued. “Considering that she herself was hand-reared, she’s shown amazing maternal instincts.” Perhaps, then, Angela Kate took a page out of the book of her surrogate mother Marilyn.
Furthermore, Marilyn, now in her 20s, is still present in the life of Angela Kate – and now in the life of Angela Kate’s daughter as well. “Marilyn has been behind the scenes with both Angela Kate and Panya, and all three have formed a close bond,” Janney revealed. After all, humans are not the only species able to love.