Necking at the movies: Norristown zoo keeps giraffes entertained with flicks

During the cold snap, the giraffes have been coping by watching some of their favorite flicks — Harry Potter movies and "March of the Penguins."

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For many of us, snow days mean binge watching your favorite TV series. At the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the giraffes have their own movie marathon while they’re stuck indoors.

During the cold snap, the giraffes have been coping by watching some of their favorite flicks — Harry Potter movies and “March of the Penguins,” said Marina Haynes, the zoo’s very bubbly general curator. 

As she led me inside a giant, brown barn at the zoo, the giraffes Dhoruba, Gerald, and Mokolo were mesmerized by a projection of Madagascar on the white-paneled wall. 

Their attention quickly broke, and Gerald, who’s got the reputation of the gentle giant, trotted over to the pen window to wiggle his tongue hello. 

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“Before you got here, the movie was the interesting, novel thing,” said Haynes. “Now that you’re here, you are the interesting novel thing!” 

The movie — and I — are a kind of enrichment, an event that’s new and exciting for the giraffe. 

Haynes puts giraffes somewhere in the middle on a scale of zebras to parrots. Unlike zebras, which tend to be pretty go with the flow, giraffes need to be creatively challenged regularly while they’re stuck indoors. But not as much as the parrots, which need tons of enrichment on a daily basis. 

The zookeepers have to continuously devise ways to keep the giraffes busy — otherwise they are prone to what Haynes calls “stereotypical behaviors.”

“If you’ve ever seen an animal pace or anything like that, those are called stereotypical behaviors,” she said. “What we’re always trying to do is never let an animal get bored so they start doing those kinds of behaviors.” 

This requires the zookeepers to cook up challenging and creative activities to entertain the giraffes. A few months ago, one of the keepers decided to project a Harry Potter film onto the barn wall. For the giraffes, the screening was a smash hit — they watched the movie for over an hour straight. 

“That was really striking for us,” said Haynes. “For an animal to be interested enough to stop what they’re doing for that length of time and pay attention to something else means that we’ve hit on something.”

Ruminating ruminants

Inside the barn, enrichment gizmos are scattered everywhere. Tree branches, PVC tubes, and fidget boards with dangly chains deck the walls. Haynes said the tubes have proved a sturdy opponent to the giraffes’ strong bite. The keepers create food puzzles, attaching prongs to the PVC tubes so that the giraffes have to really work their tongues through a maze to capture the pellets. The challenge is meant to mirror the natural gathering a giraffe would do in the wild. 

Marina Haynes, General Curator at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, says that zoo keepers do a lot more than clean animal cages. (
Marina Haynes, General Curator at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, says that zoo keepers do a lot more than clean animal cages. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Lynn Sherr, a former correspondent with ABC News and the author of “Tall Blondes,” a book all about giraffe lore, said giraffes spend most of their day thinking about food because they are ruminants. 

“They spend a good part of their day seeking out food, eating it, digesting it, and essentially reliving the experience as the food comes back up,”  she said.

On the savannas of East Africa, giraffes munch on the leaves of the thorny acacia tree. 

“This thorn tree has huge long thorns, 5 or 6 inches long, really sharp,” said Sherr. “And [the giraffe’s] tongue, which is this beautiful purple, liver-colored tongue, just comes out, wraps around the branch, slithers in and out of the thorns, and gets the leaves without ever getting hurt.”  

And so, the PVC puzzle feeders keep the giraffes engaged because they’re able to express their natural behaviors. But this poses a question: How does watching movies plug into their natural behaviors? 

Keeping watch on the watchers

In the wild, giraffes act like the silent watchtowers. They can see more than a mile away. Sherr said other animals like having giraffes around at watering holes to be on the lookout for distant threats. 

“They may be seeing something in the screen that humans are not because their eyesight is so terrific,” she said. 

Perhaps their sharp vision makes watching movies like a trippy explosion of colors. But more likely, it’s that films liven up those boring barn walls. 

“We have ‘Top Gun,’ ‘Catwoman,’ ‘March of the Penguins’ … they are pretty entranced by Morgan Freeman’s voice,” said Phil Weaver, one of the zookeepers, who personally donated the “Power Rangers” movie and the cartoon series “Rick and Morty” to the Elmwood Park Zoo’s tall stack of DVDs. 

He theorized the giraffes get a kick out of the movies because the shapes and sounds are dynamic and constantly changing. While Harry Potter is rife with action scenes, “Madagascar” has more dialogue. 

“With keepers, the name of the game is always trying to keep changing, adapting, and making new things for these guys to be able to explore,” said Haynes. 

For now, the keepers have hit the jackpot with movies. But they’re certainly committed to finding new ways to keep the giraffes on their hooves. 

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