Last week I finished reading West With Giraffes, an historical novel by Lynda Rutledge, which captures the drama of two young giraffes who arrived by ship in New York bound for the San Diego Zoo in 1938. One of the giraffes arrived with a badly damaged leg, due to having encountered the 1938 New England Hurricane, one of the deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclones to strike Long Island, New York and New England, with 682 people killed, 57,000 homes destroyed and property losses estimated at $306 million. The kind man in charge of getting the animals from New York to California treated and bandaged the leg with hopes the young giraffe could survive the arduous trek across the country.
In 1938 people were weary from the impacts of the Dust Bowl, which you may recall consisted of severe dust storms that swept across the plains of the United States and Canada in the 1930s, causing loss of crops, homes, livelihoods and lives. There was also the beginning of rumblings in Europe of another war. Drawn to something more uplifting, people were quickly captivated by the giraffes and their adventures as they made their way to their new home. The fact that the giraffe with the crushed leg had been taken for dead and almost shoved overboard before she opened her eyes and roused a bit, was enough to fill people with hope.
I thought the book would be a “light read” but I found it riveting, apparently much like the folks in 1938, cheering the giraffes on. But I got curious about the home to which they were going and about zoos generally. There is evidence of zoos perhaps as early as 2500 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Zoos originally were menageries, private collections kept by the wealthy as a demonstration of their power. But a movement began around the mid1830s to introduce animals to the wider public.
The San Diego zoo was begun in 1916 with some animals that had been left behind with a few caretakers after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition of exotic species. To that collection was first added a brown bear which had been a mascot on a Navy ship. As the bear had gotten older it had become “unruly” and the Navy offered it to the nascent zoo. At that point the zoo didn’t own any trucks for transporting animals yet. So when the Navy personnel dropped off ‘Caesar’ at the port, Dr. Thompson, one of the zoo founders, picked the bear up in his roadster and she rode along in the front seat of the car.
Located 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, the park now is housed on 1800 acres, half of which are set aside as protected native species habitat. It is one of the biggest zoos in the world and is known for its conservation habits. Indeed, over the years the zoo movement has grown to be more sensitive to issues of animals in captivity. Modern zoos see themselves as valuable centers of education, scientific research and conservation.
Some zoo history is quite gruesome, so the expanded notion of their mission is welcome. The opening quote in West With Giraffes offers a powerful and compelling reason to take this topic seriously: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”—Anatole France, Nobel Laureate, 1921.
May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter. Shalom, Kate
Hope’s Café Bonus: Kate with one week old camel at the Royal Camel Farm in Bahrain.